The Pain & Possibilities Within Midlife Crisis For Leaders and their Organizations
With insights into adult development and deep transformational "inner work" we can consciously transform middle-age from a time of relentless pressure and disappointment into the most generative and regenerative period of our careers
Leadership In Midlife
Approaching my 50s, I am pertinently aware of the immense emotional, physical, and practical challenges of middle-age and midlife.
These are even more intense for transformational leaders—who have to grapple with their own turbulent emotional and mental landscapes (and seemingly diminishing body strength)—right at the time they have to show up as the most inspirational, committed, and influential versions of themselves to lead their reports, teams, investors, shareholders, and partners through complexity and uncertainty.
This is whilst leading our projects and organizations through the encroaching storms of accelerated climate change (and pollution, global weirding etc.), worsening inequality, relentlessly disruptive technologies, seismic generational changes, and interminable culture wars. Not to mention a pandemic, supply chain meltdowns, and much more.
Our employees, reports, collaborators, suppliers, vendors are all looking to us to provide, protect, and lead lasting, necessary, and successful change (AKA transformation) to ensure our organization fits the future—and doesn’t fail it.
Whilst we are helping others navigate the ruthless changes in the outside world, we also have to navigate through the rapid changes in our inner life: during our 40s and 50, we will go through the full realization that we are no longer the cool young kids on the block.
Our kids, if we have them, my be embarrassed by us, no matter how much Tik Tok we try to grok. Our co-workers may think we are dinosaurs, no matter the trendy togs we might wear. We will realize, in one Zoom meeting or another, that we are no longer the smartest person in the room (if ever we were).
Reading glasses might be needed. Backaches, sore muscles, cognitive decline, joint pain may all begin to be far more apparent. We will probably struggle to stay fit and/or return to fitness if/when we lose it. We will start to lose friends—from conflict or death—and this will become more and more regular.
Our own mortality and morbidity will loom up into our awareness. Divorce may unfold (or has already). Our parents and community elders may be increasingly demanding, emotionally and practically. They may be sick, need to be moved into a care home, struggling with disease, or dying.
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The Opportunities Of Midlife Crisis for Leaders and Their Organizations
Above all these huge psychological and emotional challenges, in midlife we have to come fully to terms with what we have not yet achieved a a leader; and what we may be unlikely ever to achieve.
This can be existentially agonizing for many, if not most, leaders with vision and ambition. The sheer volume and intensity of disappointment (that we have not got to where we wanted), disillusion (life, other people/the world wasn’t as good as we thought it would be), pessimism (things won’t now change much for us anymore), and despair (the world is truly *%£$ed) can be utterly crushing.
Even those who seem radically successful—like this prize-winning journalist—can feel overwhelmed by the seemingly endless doubt and despair.
Cue the seemingly inevitable midlife crisis, a term coined by psychologist Elliott Jaques in 1965. In this Harvard Business Review Article, the authors believe that for all executives and leaders, “some midlife change is inevitable. But despite the necessity and frequency of such change, midlife (roughly the ages from 43 to 62) remains a very difficult period and one for which people are, on the whole, lamentably ill prepared.”
In other words, our company cultures and our society don’t help us make the transition through this period. The more so if we are experiencing peri-menopause and menopause. Although I see it as an inevitable rite of passage—the archetypal shift from being a warrior to being an elder of some kind—so few leaders we work with speak about it, prepare for it, or are supported through it.
This is a massive and missed opportunity for execs and their organizations.
As a 2008 research paper states: “For companies, employees’ midlife transitions represent both a challenge (senior managers seemingly on track to become CEO may instead leave) and an opportunity (other midlife executives, with different perspectives and experiences, may knock on the door).
Organizations must help middle-aged executives through this difficult period, not just by offering a workshop or two but by providing ongoing coaching and opportunities for personal and professional development.” This would then unlock more purpose and creativity from senior leaders, which all organizations need to reinvent themselves time and time again to thrive in VUCA contexts.
But before leaders can find our way through, and out, of midlife crisis, we need to know what to look out for.
Midlife Crisis Is Not What We Think
Nobody I have ever met has sailed through midlife without a “crisis”. Virtually everyone I have worked with—in leadership development, coaching—has spoken of harsh and intense challenges. Judging by the leaders I support, midlife crises rarely come in the cliched Lamborghini / Toy Boy / Extramarital Affair versions.
Instead, there are myriad and quotidian variations of Midlife Crisis—intense experiences of doubt and struggle about life’s purpose, value, and meaning—that are far more likely to happen. For example:
- Grinding low-grade dissatisfaction—even with seeming outward success
- Becoming disgruntled and disagreeable—and finding lots of people irritating
- Ruminating about the things you could have done/should have done
- Regrets about lost opportunities or near-misses in earlier career moments
- Cruising Facebook or LinkedIn to see how college friends or old colleagues have faired in the rat race
- Lusting after sexier job titles
- Checking the ages of famous and successful people—and not being pleased they are younger
- Creativity-crushing cynicism or innovation-crushing know-it-all-ness
- Needing to be the smartest in the room
- Demanding that juniors/consultants/vendors show deference
- Seeking out hip clothes and the latest bars
- Wanting to be invited to drinks by employees
- Wanting to be found attractive by employees and/or babysitters
- Addiction to high-adrenaline or endorphin activities
- Avoiding community duties and familial commitments (with golf, DJing etc.)
- Climate change despair or denial
- Being needlessly provocative and/or politically-polarizing
- Being endlessly flirtatious
- Relentless overworking—always *too busy* to be responsive
- Consistently feeling sidetracked at work
- Share-price and/or cypto-currency obsessions
- Late-night poker/porn/true crime habits
- Thinking “If only I was at Google / Tesla / X I would be seen for my genius”
- Thinking “If only I was CEO / CFO / SVP Strategy I would be happy”
Crisis At The Nadir of Happiness
Because of the pressures—both real and imagined—research consistently shows that middle-age is the period where unhappiness peaks (before rising again in our 50s and beyond). This is the Happiness U-Curve, made popular by the economist David Blanchflower.
The trough of our wellbeing—life’s darkest nadir— is around age 47 (my age right now!). Blanchflower just published a paper that shows that, in Europe, the nadir was around 40 in the 1970s and is rising to over 50 today, as our life expectancy grows and world changes. As he puts it: “If all else is equal, it may be more difficult to feel satisfied with your life in middle age than at other times.. Statistically speaking, going from age 20 to age 45 entails a loss of happiness equivalent to one-third the effect of involuntary unemployment.”
This explains why middle-aged men are more likely to die by suicide than any other age group. Antidepressant use peaks in this age group too. Opiate addiction in the over-40s has tripled in just over a decade.
Check this out from the UK’s ONS that shows the age of addiction getting later; and numbers getting far larger:
Encumbered by dependents younger than us, and often those older than us too, life can feel like a grim endurance test to make ends meet… and not have a heart attack or panic attack in the process. It can feel like every ounce of our energy, itself likely starting to fade, goes out towards others… and precious little of it is reserved for our own needs.
This is when the Ferrari/Tesla seems like a great idea. Or the 2nd/3rd house. Or the shiny new role. Or the golf trips. Or just some kind of intense experience or drug to blot out the agony.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
A “crisis” means a turning point in the original Greek. One of the key transformational insights we teach leaders is that every crisis can be metabolized into growth. If we can pause, take stock, and engage fully to explore the deeper meaning of the crisis, we can always discover a leadership upgrade available to us from it.
This seemingly simple statement is the core insight of all adult development and, without knowing it to be true, we could not work with leaders to help them develop themselves and their teams. The beauty incorporated at the core of evolutionary thinking is that crisis is always an invitation for organisms/organizations to adapt, learn, and grow.
The Leadership Choice In Midlife: Stagnation or Generativity
A psychologist I have learned much from, Erik Erikson, talked about middle age—and the midlife crises that can so easily derail us, our organizations, and our families—being a period of huge importance.
After all, we can no longer claim to be ignorant youths at this august age. Middle age is the 7th of his 8 stages of development. It is the longest of all his stages—and the one within which we get to leave a legacy (of some kind, designed or not).
In each of his stages—which are not evidence-based truths but useful lenses for leadership development and adult maturity—we have to reconcile seemingly opposing polarities of development.
For example, as younger adults in our 20s and 30s, we have to find a way to become intimate with others—even though such vulnerability and commitment can be terrifying—and the seeming opposite of the independence we strive for.
If we don’t, we will become lonely and isolated and this will delay our adult development as a whole.
In our 40s and 50s—during the midlife crisis/transition—we must find a way to resolve the hardest tension we have yet encountered in our lives: the bifurcation between generativity and stagnation.
We have to choose between emotional and mental stasis—getting stuck in our stress, our disappointments, our resentments—and willingly undergoing a transformation into becoming what Eriskon calls generative.
Generativity reflects not simply productivity but the interplay of internal needs with connections to society that leads to concern for and active nurturance of a new generation.
From Adult Generativity To Regenerative Leadership
Given that we are currently in the middle of a complex, multi-layered crisis—with climate change, inequality, (culture) wars, and ill-health shaking up our entire planet—I like to evolve Erikson’s sense of generativity into the idea of regenerative leadership
I summarize regenerative thinking as “leaving the world better” with our careers, projects, and enterprises. It is about connecting back to nature, finding ourselves in the rhythms and seasons of life, and shifting our leadership vision and organizational mission towards encouraging more life, more flourishing, more creativity with every decision.
Generativity is a function of heartfelt care—not charity, duty, wealth, status, or intelligence—that has us take under our wing talented team members; double-down on social impact, sustainability,and purpose elements of our work; and give more of our creativity and capacities than ever before.
Becoming regenerative, rather than stagnating, requires us to expand how much, and how deeply, we care about the society, our loved ones, and—ultimately—the natural world on which we all rely on for life.
Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness. Jonathan Rauch
Research bears out the value of such a seismic shift in our priorities: from profit to purpose; from results to relationships; from what we get out to what we can give back. This seems to be a rite of passage encoded into the human journey through life.
We can see the positive impacts of this transformation through the epic Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest-running research program on human development. It shows that by the time we are in late life, aged 80 or so, “close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy.”
Caring for others, for nature, ‘inoculates’ us against the inevitable sadness, disappointments, and regrets of later life. Our close, connected, and generative “ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”
In midlife, we have to focus our energies on finding deeper meaning and connectivity so that we can regenerate ourselves and or world or we will be hit by a massive and sustained midlife crisis. Even if our careers seem great, if they are focused on old drivers of motivation like power, prestige, and profit, our evolution will be stunted. Our consciousness will stagnate. Cue midlife crisis and the nadir of happiness.
In other words, the shift to being a generative leader, and even a regenerative leader, is tied to how much we invest in our relationships, wisdom, and purpose. And it is the best way we have of turning a midlife crisis into a midlife opportunity.
Creativity For Some Peaks In Middle-Age
If we heed this developmental rite of passage consciously—as transformational leaders of our own lives and careers—our 40s and 50s can be the exhilarating start point of the 2nd Half of Life. Equipped with our hard-earned insights, we can focus on deepening our embodied wisdom so we can show up with presence, gravitas, and power needed to care about others; and our world. This caring—another term for leadership purpose—becomes the pulsing core of our leadership endeavors.
This won’t happen by accident, however. We have to do what coaches and leadership developers call the “inner work”. This means stopping solve problems ‘out there’ for a few hours a week to turn inward instead. Using embodied leadership practices, we can metabolize the feelings of disappointment, pessimism, and despair into commitment, care, and hope. Thus, we transform the inevitable midlife crisis into a gateway into the most purposefully and relationally creative period of our lives.
The kids will still need a lot of attention and care to help them navigate such an intense world. Our co-workers will still demand answers to mounting complexity and uncertainty. Our parents may need a lot of support. We may get seriously sick ourselves. Our organizations will still need a lot of our mojo/moxie to survive and thrive in the rapidly-changing world.
But on the inside—through our inward leadership work—we will have transformed. This then will change how we experience all the challenges of midlife and turn this period into the most fecund and generative period of our lives to date: The 2nd Half Of Life.
Research bears this out. Studies have shown that in the 2nd Half of Life our confidence can blossom; and our creativity can bloom. Economist Bruce Weinberg has published research that, whilst showing some are most innovative in their 20s and 30s, other types of leaders, innovators, and artists peak creatively in their 50s.
Such “experimental innovators… accumulate knowledge through their careers and find groundbreaking ways to analyze, interpret and synthesize that information into new ways of understanding.” This chimes with the research of another psychologist, who states that “it is possible to stay creative throughout one’s life span.”
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The Start of An Expansive & Exhilarating “2nd Act”
As well as being a possible descent into a midlife crisis, middle-age can also be an invitation to commit to really finding, and then fully expressing, our purpose in the world. This means rethinking what is important—and refocusing our energies, monies, and time on ways to contribute meaningfully to the brokenness all around us.
These activities must take precedence over our old behaviors otherwise we will stagnate—even if we think we’re having fun and living the life of X. As I have written elsewhere, purpose can save our lives.
If we choose to do the transformational inward work to become later-life innovators, artists, culture makers, activists, conscious parents, and leaders of change, a whole new playground of possibilities—more meaningful, existentially rich, and purposeful—opens up; even as the things we thought were important fade into the background.
If we put our major efforts into tending to the rich gardens of our most important relationships—kids, family, friends, business partners, team members, board colleagues, elders, collaborators, and customers—we will grow fast as leaders.
This is the way to avoid frittering away our energies on worthless stuff and meaningless meetings; and on ruminating on our despair and disappointment. This, in turn, reenergizes us, bringing us back some of the moxie/mojo we’ve been missing to we can bring fresh energy, insights, and oomph to the problems we face.
We may well feel better—and may even look younger—than we ever have! The twinkle in the eye returns. Our renewed mojo/moxie to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of our world. We become truly transformational leaders: able to confidently and consciously lead our people, organizations, and systems towards a regenerative future.
The Two Options For Every Middle-Aged Leader
We all have a choice. Either we do the (inner) work needed to become (re)generative as mature adults and leaders, which takes a huge investment in development and growth … or we will likely become increasingly withdrawn and disconnected from life and the energy coursing through it. We might then console the pain of stagnation with attempts for more fame and fortune; and the illusions of personal freedom from duties and cares.
The choice is stark:
The Way Of Leadership Breakdown: We ignore the invitation, the initiation into this rite of passage. We crave what we did not get; become disillusioned and pessimistic; we stick to being right about everything… and become shells of who we good have been if we stepped into maturity wholeheartedly—rather than resist it with a fragmented, traumatized, and disorganized heart.
The Way of Leadership Breakthrough: We heed the invitation and step up fully into this rite of passage—even if we do so, like I did, alone. We grieve for what might have been, strong in the wisdom of what did happen is workable. We let go of who we thought we were, and who we thought we wanted to be, to embrace who we are becoming as a regenerative, transformational, leader.
No leader—no human being!—gets away with not engaging in this life-stage choice fully. There is no escape—other than death; and even then, we still leave the consequences of our choice on the matter for our children, teams, employees, and partners to deal with; as best they can. It is a doozie of a Hero’s Journey. It is the boss-level.
We must step up once again to become our true potential as leaders in our lives and society and choose—consciously and emphatically—to upgrade our consciousness… or let it subside into ever-decreasing circles: scared of life, scared of further disappointment, scared of death.
It’s not easy to transform Midlife Crisis into Midlife Breakthrough. But it is 100% possible. I stake my reputation on that. It is a profoundly intense and immense—but developmentally natural and necessary—transition into what my business partner Alison calls our “Wisdom Years”. I don’t think we can be truly transformational leaders without developing and embodying such wisdom.
The HBR article on mid-life, The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change, goes on to state: “The good news for executives approaching midlife is that changes in the work market in the past few decades have increased the opportunities for midlife career moves… of course coming to a realization of possibilities is a challenging task, one that often requires the help of a personal consultant, coach, or therapist with some understanding of career development.”
Before we unlock opportunities for our organization to renew and regenerate itself, we have to get ourselves right. We can lead our teams and organization to survive, and thrive in, the relentlessly-changing future that is rushing towards us all as long as we do the work on our own inner turmoil first.
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