Goodbye Superman; Hello Team!

Aug 19, 2019

By Sander Flaum

Sander A. Flaum has some advice for hard-driving, stressed-out senior executives: don’t try to be Superman. He predicts that the most successful leaders of the future will look to the top chiefs of the past (Jack Welch, for example) who built A teams to share the burden—and the glory.

The brain, despite our wishes, has not evolved for higher level multi-tasking. Yes, we can walk and chew gum simultaneously, but as study after study has confirmed, we are happiest and most successful when we devote our full attention to the matter at hand.  Nevertheless, we write single-tasking off as inefficient or even wimpy and plunge into multiple projects that clamor for attention in chorus—and we suffer as a result. 

And no one suffers more than a CEO and other senior executives, who experience external pressure from the board, shareholders, analysts, employees, customers, and competitors, as well as internal pressure for continued achievement at a job that never stops. The proliferation of perversely named “smartphones” has only heightened the stress, by making executives “available” to constituents who believe that access plus information equals efficiency. The reality is quite the opposite.

Fortunately, the cat may have opted out of the bag.  As the Financial Times reported recently, despite the expectations put upon them by others and themselves to be superhuman, executives are human after all. And they respond to overwhelming stress like anyone else: they burn out.

As an example, the Financial Times cited the unexpected departure of Pfizer’s Chief Executive, Jeff Kindler, last December. In Mr. Kindler’s words, “The combination of meeting the requirements of our many stakeholders around the world and the 24/7 nature of my responsibilities, has made this period extremely demanding on me personally.”  The FT also noted that in 2006, Lee Scott, the former chief executive for Wal-Mart, had taken an unexpected, month-long vacation due to physical and emotional exhaustion. Having endured years of public criticism over his company’s practices, Scott publicly admitted: “Going out each week and talking to another group that doesn’t like you takes its toll.”

What interests human resource (HR) analysts about these and countless other stressed-out execs is their open admission that they couldn’t take the overload. So if it’s out in the open that stress gets to everyone, now what? We can’t go back to life before the advent of instant technology and return to regular “office hours.”  Most corporate work is internationally time-sensitive.  Oil wells don’t wait until 9:15 a.m. eastern time to explode.

One HR consulting company cited in the FT article, DDI (Development Dimensions International), said better hiring practices and follow-up are in order. DDI advocates putting potential executive candidates through a battery of tests to gauge how they will perform under pressure—think flight simulator for pilots in training. (As if the ability to reach the executive pinnacle at a Fortune 500 company could be detected in a standardized test.) Robert Bontempo, adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, said of the DDI-style testing: “This field is fraught with pseudo-science…much of the application of these tools is done by well-intentioned practitioners, but it is truly garbage.” 

My 40 years of corporate experience have shown me that when the rubber hits the road, “super-people” are a myth. An executive may seem to have it all under control for a while—working round the clock, bragging about needing four hours of sleep at the most; but then we find out he’s getting divorced, has a drinking problem, or has developed serious health issues. My approach is to acknowledge the demands my job imposes and to use humor, collaborative team work, a strong number two person, and strength-based delegation to manage them. I have also always taken interesting vacations. (There’s no Wi-Fi on an African safari).

I predict that the great executives of the next decade won’t be the celebrity powerhouses who stand alone to accept all the glory or blame. They will instead be team builders fully aware of their own and others’ personal limitations. These leaders will understand human limitations, acknowledge when external demands become impossible, and make a concerted effort to not pass these burdens on to others. The top chiefs of the past—Jack Welch for example—got the job done by building A teams that covered each other and took on multiple tasks through a divide and conquer mentality. The strong executives of the next decade will guard their own mental health and that of their people, just as they do other precious resources.

In this world, the executive suite (and the floors beneath) could once more become fun places at which to work (I’m sure some of you remember those days). Work becomes enjoyable when we recognize the need to tackle it together. It is through this need that bonds of trust are created and sustained. Those of us who have experienced these bonds know they are what keep people coming in to work day after day, armed with the creative energy and innovative spark that allows them to outperform their over-stressed competitors.

About the Author(s)

Sander Flaum is principal of Flaum Navigators (, chairman and founder of the Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham Graduate School of Business; and author of Big Shoes…How Successful Leaders Grow Into New Roles.