Even though all of the leaders I have worked with are unique, the common thread for most is that at the outset of their leadership journeys, they feel as though they are trapped in a repeating scenario – just like Phil Connors, the Pittsburgh TV weatherman played by Bill Murray in Harold Ramis’ classic Groundhog Day (1993). At six o’clock every morning, Connors wakes up to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” playing on the radio, and to the dreaded realization that he is doomed to repeat the same day over and over again. He is trapped in Groundhog Day.
In a similar fashion, many of the business leaders I have worked with would wake up and relive a similar reality, day after day after day. One of them would wake up dreading the seemingly endless queue of subordinates lining up at his door, looking for direction. Another’s Groundhog Day revolved around adjudicating the conflict among her executive team members. Yet another’s involved trying to muscle his way out of a dire financial situation. And another would climb out of bed with the horrible feeling that no matter what she tried, the day would be a struggle.
Like Bill Murray’s character, leaders do not comprehend that they are perpetuating their Groundhog Day through their own actions and the impact these actions have on others. For example, one leader experienced high levels of stress, anger, fatigue, and a sense of frustration – it seemed like he was powerless to make the positive changes he so desperately wanted to make. His days usually ended with late night phone arguments with his international colleagues rather than with him reading bedtime stories with his young daughter.
But there is more to this story. He was not just a victim of the role – he had become very adept at playing the victim. Over his career, he had internalized the leadership ideals of his rather aggressive superiors to such an extent, that he had the same negative impact on his own staff. Of course, at first he couldn’t see this because he was so consumed by his Groundhog Day routine and the victim mindset that he had adopted to cope.
Leaders often lack the time, space and reflective capabilities to plot a way out of their Groundhog Day. Ironically, it is the very act of disciplined reflection that allows leaders to understand how they are reinforcing the repetitive loop they’re trapped in, and eventually break out of it.