During a burnout workshop I was conducting in St Petersburg, Russia, a management consultant brought up the question of downshifting, in which senior executives of major industrial firms would suddenly, and sometimes dramatically, leave their positions. Often they would “go off to India” in search of inner truth.
The situation appeared to reflect job burnout, but how? The frequency and drama of these events suggested something implicit to their position prompted the downshifting reaction. The following scenario seemed plausible:
First, executive positions have become increasingly complex. The instant demands channeled through information and communication technologies can easily overload one. The complex logistics of succeeding in international business competition add a qualitatively new level of demands.
Second, Russian business culture prefers centralized authority. One person is the boss. The boss is loath to share real authority with others. But the position demands call for an integrated executive team to share the load and to bring diverse expertise to major decisions.
Third, successful executives want to be the boss.. They want to be the person who determines the course of events. Their objectives may be selfish or noble, but they enjoy the sensation of steering the enterprise in whatever direction.
Fourth, the conditions outlined in the first and second points above back executives into a corner. The complex demands make them more and more reactive, less and less creative.
Eventually, the choice to leave this position and to embark upon an entirely new path becomes compelling. Opportunities for following one’s destiny become alive.
It’s a radical solution to job burnout and one that brings serious costs to these companies. Perhaps a new approach to sharing authority would be a good idea.