Creative leadership: slaying the four-headed Hydra

Menno van Dijk
Article by: Menno van Dijk
Creative leadership: slaying the four-headed Hydra

How do leaders and start-up entrepreneurs deal with the multi-headed Hydra of long hours, external pressures, opportunities, and responsibilities for others? THNK Co-Founder Menno van Dijk shares some heartfelt insights from his own experience and offers practical advice for dealing with four Hydra heads threatening creative leadership.


Many of us make really long hours. We all work incredibly hard. And sometimes we forgo sleep, rest and time for ourselves because of this.  I have learnt over the years that controlling one’s work/health balance is a Hydra monster. It has several heads that need to be slayed before you gain control.   You may remember that Hercules was given the impossible task of slaying the Hydra monster. When he found that for every head he cut off, two would grow back, he asked for advice and his nephew had the brilliant idea to seal off the necks with fire. Hercules was open to outside ideas, and on that note I thought I might offer some ideas as well.



Hydra head 1: lack of confidence

When I just started working I often felt under-qualified for the job, an imposter, just waiting to be discovered and fired.  In response I worked really hard - often more than 70 hours a week - to make sure that at least I could never be accused of slacking.  It took me several years to realize that working hard is fine, but that it makes a big difference when you don't do it to compensate for a perceived lack. Rather, you are working from the confidence that you are okay as you are, and want to bring yourself to the world through work. Only then did I really rest when I rested and really work when I worked. I built the confidence to realize that I am good enough as I am and can now work from there.   So to seal off the neck… maybe it is time for you to know that you have true qualities within yourself and base your work on that notion. This way, you can keep that head from growing back. Also, when you have people working for you who are younger than you, who are truly talented and are working really, really hard because they lack confidence and worry about their strengths and qualifications, please tell them how impressed you are with them and give them recognition.



Hydra head 2: external pressures

I often have felt serious external pressures. There were always deadlines to meet, targets to realize, and tasks to accomplish. This external pressure became a burden so oppressive it made me feel squeezed.   I know you have the same pressures and will feel even more of them in the future.  As entrepreneurs and innovation leaders you need to find financing or your mission might not be realized. You need customers; you need to get work done – and there is a lot of work that still needs to be done; you have to keep your Boards pleased, etc. etc.   For me it helps to think about fish and animals living in the deep sea.  The water pressure at that depth is incredible. And yet some mammals go from the surface all the way down there. Elephant seals and Weddell seals for instance can dive over a mile deep. These animals seem to share the same secret: Instead of fighting the pressure, they let it collapse their lungs completely.  They use the pressure to make their body fat smaller, which makes it easier to dive to the depths where no-one else hunts for their food, and they slow their heart rate, pacing themselves rather than panicking. So let the external pressure go through - do not let it affect you.   There is a story about a CEO who was woken up by a call at 3 am from a panicked plant manager, telling him that one of the plants was on fire. He advised the guy to call the fire brigade and went back to sleep.  There is another story about a CEO who was receiving an overload of urgent emails every day. He decided to always let the most urgent emails wait in his inbox for a few days, and discovered most problems just solved themselves and that he could breathe again.   For me the most valuable coaching came from one of my mentors, who, when I once ran into his office totally stressed, asked me if my mother still loved me. Because – he said - as long as that was the case, I should not let any pressures affect me.   So to seal off the neck, my wish for you is that when you feel strong pressure you will be able to recognize it, name it and then even smile at it. Know that it is part of where you want to be going, where not many others go. And that you can always slow down, breathe through it and let the pressure go through you. Go back to the essence of why you do what you do – and give your mother a call.



Hydra head 3: responsibilities for others

I worked on many projects where I feared for the future of the company I served, and the jobs of the people employed.   As a social entrepreneur you feel a strong responsibility and urgency to a societal cause, and these causes are typically daunting. You might be a commercial entrepreneur or corporate manager and feel a strong responsibility to ensure the company survives and there is still work for its employees.   Perhaps it helps to think of the instructions you receive aboard an airplane. You hear that if air pressure drops and oxygen masks need to be put on, you should always put on your own mask first before putting one on the child next to you. This is not a selfish act. It is meant to ensure you keep control over your situation. And yet we obviously need reminding of these instructions, especially when we care a lot, like when it’s our own child sitting next to us.   So next time you hear these instructions on a plane, let it be a reminder that in life also it is always important to keep your head cool, maintain control, and take care of your own health and safety before helping others. To seal off the Hydra head, remember that helping others is hard, so we need to be there and be functioning well to truly help them.



Hydra head 4: too many opportunities

A final challenge I encountered is trying to pursue too many opportunities in parallel. At a certain stage, I got to a level where I was receiving many requests every week to get engaged in exciting initiatives and started to come across many opportunities I would like to pursue.   Please realize you are in a candy store. There is a lot that looks tasty, but if you eat everything your hands can reach you will overeat and end up feeling really sick. You have to control yourself.   And more importantly, not every opportunity is right for you. Hercules could just continue chopping off heads like a maniac, but that got him nowhere. He had to find fire to seal them and make real progress. So find your fire. Life is too short to live without it. Find the projects where you can have a real impact and make a real difference. Be selective to achieve a real oomph. For you also know that once you have completed a challenge to great success, like Hercules, the Gods are certain to send you the next one. So you need to be in good shape. Look after yourself!



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Header image: By zohsat.deviantart. Source: Retrieved May 8, 2014.