The Leader as a “Heat Sink”

In everything from soldering circuit boards to dissipating the thermal energy created by computer server farms, the technological world appreciates the value of a “heat sink.”  Without heat sinks, we would have far more component hiccups or even outright failures.

Heat sinks serve a vital purpose in dissipating energy and allowing a device to function.

But what happens when the leader becomes the metaphorical “heat sink,” taking in all or most of the heat and energy that is emanated from the crisis, the organization and the people with whom he or she is dealing?

Coaching women and men these past four months, I have found myself using this heat sink metaphor often  – inviting the leaders who deal with the current crisis to think about the human emotion and “heat” that has been built up on their teams and themselves.  Some of the calmest and most centered individuals I know today are now struggling as never before, with the weighty issues and unknowns facing their personal and professional world.  And the “heat” from that often finds its way into a ready conduit – the leader himself.  Some call it stress, others call it workload.  My clients readily appreciate the metaphor of “heat.”

Where does that energy go once it enters the psyche of the individual?  Under “normal” (a word we often yearn for now), it is readily dissipated after work with a person’s family, or at places like the gym or the tennis court.  It is also diminished because, regardless of workload, there is a certain sine wave to normal work life, with ebbs and flows that allow us to subsume the energy that is built up as a result of events in the workplace.

Today is different.  A 24-hour leadership cycle has emerged and the workplace has shifted to home, with most leaders having no clear delineation between their professional roles and their experience as parents, spouses, and caregivers.  The hours are longer, the stresses of communication more challenging and the issues our people face are often new to everyone – including the leader.  As a consequence, there is little frame of reference and a sort of normlessness can permeate our existence, bringing emotions and so much real “heat,” that we find ourselves reacting in ways we would have never imagined.

And sometimes the buildup within is so powerful that we begin to withdraw from others, including our closest colleagues, subordinates, friends and personal relationships, perhaps because we feel that there is nothing left for us to give.  And when we close down in that way, we can occasionally begin to write narratives about ourselves and others that might not reflect the realities we face.  We might even begin to “project” feelings, words, or what we think are the intentions of others, that are not accurate.  We thus limit or foreclose the ability of meeting others where they are.

As you read these words they may resonate with you.  If they do, take heart in the fact that you are not alone.  In all of my clients I see these times of crisis etched in their faces and hear it in their words.  My role is to help them “unpack” those experiences through questions that are meant to evoke awareness of what they are going through.

Awareness is the key for all of us.  If you can name it, you can begin to tame what is in your head and in your heart.  And by being aware that you have become a “heat sink,” you have made the first step in gaining perspective and understanding of what you are experiencing.

Reaching out to everyone in your life and exploring that awareness is your most powerful tool.  From there you can consider actions that will reduce the heat or help subsume it – and even see it for what it is and recognize that it might not even be heat that you need to take in.  When you reach out to others you can share your perspectives and, by doing so, realize that the realities we all face as individuals alone are really just a part of the larger reality in today’s world.

And, most importantly, you can help others realize that the heat they feel themselves is very real and universally felt.

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