Is good leadership bad for the wellbeing of leaders?

Employees like leaders who put the needs of their teams first. But this can take an emotional toll.

The jury has deliberated and reached a unanimous decision; Leaders need to put the needs of their team first.

Leaders who focus on the professional and personal development of their employees outperform traditional vision-oriented and profit-driven leaders.

This should not come as a surprise.

When I ask people to tell me about their ‘best’ leadership experience, most people recall stories where they had a leader who helped develop their careers; that they were honest and acted with integrity, that they put the team first.

It’s getting personal

More recently, these stories are getting more personal.

As trust in our leader grows, we see them as confidants and often share personal stories with them about the anguish that is going on in our lives – which may or may not be affecting our work.

Leaders then become pseudo-psychologists, trying to navigate the hardships of their employees’ lives.

We know that these team-focused leaders promote employee wellbeing and thriving because they care about their employees. But who cares about the wellbeing of leaders?

It does not matter if you preach a team-based culture if you only reward individual-focused behaviours – that is what you are going to get.

Good leadership can be bad for leaders

Putting the needs of your followers first and being there for them when things go wrong is significantly taxing on the leader.

There has been a proliferation of research on the impact of positive leadership on employees, but we very rarely stop to question what impact it is having on the leaders themselves.

Developing people is physically and emotionally exhausting. Not only are you trying to get your work done, but you also need to factor in time (and emotional energy) during the day to develop your employees.

Leaders need support to deal with the extra demands now put on them due to 21st Century leadership practices.

Without support and understanding from the organisation, engaging in employee-first leadership may lead to empathy burnout, role overload and reduced levels of thriving and wellbeing.

Performance and promotion

Many organisations have embraced the fact that leaders need to develop their team, but they have not changed their reward and promotion systems accordingly.

With individual-achievement oriented reward systems, leaders who focus on their team can often be overlooked for bonuses and promotions, even though their team is thriving and performing.


Is it the same for men and women?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the impacts are worse for women than they are for men.

There is a greater expectation for women to invest time and develop their team members, on top of the extra-role behaviours they are already expected to perform in organisations.

When it comes to promotions, if an organisation is rewarding their leaders for engaging in employee-focused behaviours, they are more likely to reward men for leading in this way as nurturing behaviours are not expected from men.

Women, on the other hand, are expected to behave in this way, and if anything, are punished if they do not demonstrate employee-first behaviours.

These are jarring disparities that organisations need to counter in order for us to have the leaders we need to deal with 21st Century leadership.

Is being a bad leader the answer?

Being a bad leader is not the answer. The world needs more leaders who look after their employees, not fewer. But we do need to look after these leaders.

Organisations need to examine their own practices and policies and see what sorts of leadership behaviours they are rewarding and punishing.

It does not matter if you preach a team-based culture if you only reward individual-focused behaviours – that is what you are going to get.


How to be a great leader and still thrive in the workplace

You probably already know that exercise, eating and sleeping well and taking time out is important for overall wellbeing.

In the workplace, however, there are a few things that can assist you in order to thrive as a leader and engaging in sustainable employee-first behaviours.

Know your early burnout signs: If you feel burnt out, it is already too late. If one of your employees is ramping up the support they need from you (promotion, problems at work/home, significant change), think about how much time you need to spend with them to give them the support they need and how much time is left over to do your other duties. Plan your time and commitments accordingly.

Know when to hand-over: As leaders, we like to fix things and leave things better than we found it. So, when a problem emerges, we like to try and see it through to its completion. You cannot be all things to all people – you don’t have the capacity nor do you have the training. Help transition your employees to the services available at your organization or external services. They have much more experience and have the time to dedicate to helping your team member.

Get help when you need help: Psychologists are very good at their job. Most major organisations now are signed up for an employee assistance program where you can go to debrief after a few tough meetings. Remember, if you are suggesting that your employees see someone when they are dealing with stress at work, a good way to signal that it is ok is by leading by example.

Speak up to change policies: If your organisation preaches one leadership approach but rewards another, speak up and try to make the change. It will make your life as an employee-first leader much easier and foster a new generation of leaders who care more about their employees, than the company bottom line.


Monash Business School’s Multidisciplinary International Network on Thriving –  MINT research team – is currently working with large Australian organisations to analyse how they lead, their leadership training, and the effects of leadership on the leaders and the followers. To discuss a potential research collaboration project or find out more about our research outcomes, please contact: Dr Nathan Eva; E:

Published on 27 Nov 2019