The Martyr Leader

“You, know how it is, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” my friend said as she was telling me about the problems encountered on a project she was managing. To me it sounded like a martyr with perfection issues.

As I thought about this, I recalled all of the managers and bosses I had over the years that micromanaged under the guise of getting things done right. One of my first bosses had a pet peeve about the way a flier was posted on the wall — the tape had to be horizontal, not diagonal or vertical, on all four corners. Another boss required me to sit with him as he went through all of my work each day.mindfulness meditation leadership

Martyrdom in leadership is unproductive, deteriorates trusts, minimizes employees and blocks flow, which in turn, limits growth.

When Leaders Become Martyrs

One of the greatest problems in start-up companies is the founder/CEO shifting from bootstrapping to leading. Doing everything becomes habitual. Letting go of the reins and trusting your team can feel like an affront to all the leaders hard work to grow the business.

Stepping back from the daily duties in order to take on the role of leadership requires courage, trust, and faith. Certainly, if you have hired well, you have a team you can trust. They have a high level of skill and autonomy, communicate well, and achieve their goals. The further away you are from trusting your team, the less likely you will be to take risks, open up, communicate well, build on collective creativity and work dynamically.

If, however, you hired to fill positions with bodies, you cannot lead or manage your way out of a bad team. You’ll need to take the time to make some hard choices of replacing the wrong people with better suited candidates. Surrender the martyr approach to just filling in for the lack. Doing the leadership work here will make an enormous difference.

The following three areas help transition martyrs to leaders.

From Martyr To Great Leader

Great leadership starts with self-awareness. How well do you know yourself? Why do you do what you do? What drives your actions (or apathy)? Who taught you how to manage conflict and stress? What are your implicit biases? (Those always show up in times of stress as your default mode) What self-limiting (often subconscious) behaviors do you have? What role do perfectionism, unrealistic expectations, and a lack of trust play in your life? How attune are you to your feelings and thoughts? Do you let those derail you? Are you taking care of your self and your (physical, mental, and spiritual) health?

Generating self-awareness takes practice and experimentation over time. It helps to work with a coach or mentor in order to overcome blind spots, ask the hard questions, and provide accountability for doing the work. The ROI, however is lucrative because as you do this work on yourself, you will be more empathetic to your team and create a richer environment for the whole team to thrive.

Cultivating Communication

Communication is critical. Follow the 5 W’s to improve productivity while minimizing obstacles:

  • What you need
  • When you need it
  • Why you need it
  • What expectations are associated
  • Who is responsible.

Failure As Function

Finally, embrace failure rather than resisting. This sounds counter intuitive. However, what you resist persists. Seth Godin said of failure, “If failure isn’t an option, then success isn’t either;  success is failure repeated until it works.” By embracing failure as a learning experience, you gain valuable skills and knowledge that can be honed to make better choices. Giving your team permission to fail, opens up the flow of creativity and innovation, it allows them to think outside of the box for new, better, different solutions. Ultimately, that is what will drive success.

If you truly want your team to succeed, it’s time to retire the martyr and start doing the real work of leading, starting with yourself.


Looking for a mentor to help uplevel your self-awareness? Check out my mentoring program. Not sure you’re ready or it’s right for you? No problem. Check out my tea and chocolate chat– it’s an abbreviated mentoring session that simply costs you a bit of chocolate (or tea). It’s done virtually or by phone.

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