It took five years of cult-like commitment, working over 60 hours per week while eschewing exercise, sleep, and home life. Living on coffee, adrenaline, and drive. Today we’d say I stopped practicing self-care, but back then, I just wanted to grow the business and work my way up the ladder.

After half a decade of self-abnegation, I’d finally been added to the company’s weekly leadership roundtable. I was one of the anointed few sitting around the most prestigious table since the Last Supper. And today we were on the fourth straight meeting to discuss possible dress code changes.

A couple calendar pages later, some of the luster of initiation had faded. I tried to tell myself it had actually patinaed. Maybe it was some of the weariness of an elder statesman. That was part of my internal narrative, obviously taking myself and my career way too seriously.

Trivial topics were part of the problem, but the real issue was the naked emperors to my left and right. I earned my position here due to my business savvy, leadership acumen, and proven track record of success, but my peers intimated a different reality. Again, taking myself too seriously. Their primary qualifications were decades spent with the organization and a willingness, even a fervor, to do whatever they were told. They were comfortable serving as middle managers, NPCs that had no qualms about requiring everyone to work overtime on Monday and then laying those same people off Tuesday. Bored people in a boardroom.

“This is a very expensive meeting. Based on an hour of our time, each of these sessions cost over $1,500 and that doesn’t take into consideration opportunity costs. We’ve focused on this dress code issue for four straight meetings. That’s over six grand talking about the color of scrubs that team members will soon have covered in plaster and dust, never to be seen by the public eye. During the last meeting it seemed like we reached a consensus, but there were concerns about the $20k budget. We’re spending nearly half that talking about it. We could’ve decided or instituted a plan to request more money. Instead, we’re eating up time and money.”


I could feel my frustration becoming detectable, so I paused and looked around the room. Both Marks beamed back at me with pride. A couple others stared back at me devoid of any expressions, and the others bobbleheaded to demonstrate the active listening techniques they’d learned in a recent leadership communications course.

Forcing a smile, I calmed myself and asked Brenda Bobblehead, “What do you think we should do?”

“I’m just listening”, Brenda said while slowing her bobblehead nod.

“Thanks for listening” I said, “But what do you think we should do? Should we vote? Should we go back to Barry and ask for more money? What do you suggest we do next?”

Her head nod involuntarily turned to a slight shake and red splotches the shape of Idaho and Florida darkened on her neck and cheeks. “I’m just listening.”

“Got it. What’s your view on this, Ned?”, I asked.

Ned nodded with a contemplative look and said, “It’s a lot to think about. Definitely some food for thought.”

“On that note, we’re out of time”, interjected the meeting moderator. “Speaking of food for thought, we still need to vote about where we’ll have lunch brought in for next week’s meeting.”

Like a banshee, Brenda exclaimed, “I vote for Imo’s!”

“We had Imo’s last week”, Ned emoted above the din. “Let’s get Pasta House.”

I gathered my note pad, pen, and laptop and moved toward the door with the cacophonous discussion of next week’s lunch delivery filling the void occupied by uncomfortable silence just moments earlier. I inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, trying to exorcise the vapidity from my soul so none of my team could see how embarrassed and dispirited I was. On the way out, the two Marks smirked as if to say been there, done that.

Most evenings and weekends were dedicated to developing new product messaging, reading trade journals, creating go-to market strategies, and plotting new workflows to improve efficiency. This important work, activity that actually propelled the business forward was relegated to the off-hours because a typical day on my Outlook calendar looked a lil’ something like this:

  • 7:30 – 8:15 Monthly Benchmark Meeting
  • 8:30 – 9:15 Mindfulness in Management
  • 9:30 – 10:30 Introduction to New Ownership Team
  • 10:30 – 11:30 Communications Training
  • 11:30 – 12:30 Employee Anniversaries & Birthdays Lunch
  • 12:15 – 1:15 Annual Review
  • 1:30 – 2:30 Lean Manufacturing Training
  • 4:00 – 5:00 Call Coaching with Ryan

Then, I’d typically respond to emails and do some of the hourly employees’ remaining work until around 7pm. I just wanted to keep payroll down. Their time past 5pm was worth time and a half while I was all inclusive, baby.


It was around this time that I was called into a room by the Director of HR, Tara Stepford, who also doubled as the aforementioned meeting moderator. My stomach felt like it was in a Gordian knot while I stood up in a canoe during a tsunami. I was cold but could feel my underarms turning into swamps, like the ice age hit the Everglades. I actually pictured miniaturized garden gnomes ice skating past frozen alligators. It’s so weird where our brain goes during stressful situations.

Why was I here? What did I do? All I do is work. Am I being fired?

Should I perform seppuku here or wait until I get home? Will I even have a home? Can you choose your own bed in a homeless shelter?

Tara began, “You might be wondering why I asked you to come here today. That’d be a fair question to ask.” 10 years my junior, Tara was torn from businesswoman central casting and effortlessly elocuted the jargon du jour. Picture an age-progressed photo of Vicki from the TV show Small Wonder. Swap out the Little Orphan Annie dress for a Hope Hicks pantsuit and you get the picture.

She continued, “I need to bring it to your attention that someone in the leadership roundtable meeting has informed me that they find you intimidating, and this person doesn’t feel they can be themselves in the meeting because you make them feel uncomfortable.”

Remorse was sprinkled on the nausea that I was already feeling and I immediately volunteered an apology. I felt terrible that I made anyone feel uncomfortable. Although my internal Respect-O-Meter for most of the people in that room ran between 0 and 3, I never wanted to stifle anyone’s speech or make anyone feel they couldn’t be themselves. If felt awful hearing this. If violated who I thought I was at my core, how I wanted to treat others, and how I wanted to be seen by them too.

“This person asked to remain anonymous and does not wish to file a complaint at this time, but they did grant me permission to have this conversation with you.” Tara paused and nodded like a glitchy animatronic. “The person also said that it wasn’t necessary that you be removed from the meeting right now.”

“Can you give me some info about what I said or did so I can make corrective action”, I earnestly asked while also waiting for the word termination.

Tara said, “Unfortunately, sharing any details might jeopardize the complainant’s anonym—.”

I cut her off mid-sentence and quickly recognizing my rising blood pressure, forced myself to slow down, and mirror Tara’s measured clips.

“Just to be clear”, I began, “I said something or behaved in a way that made someone feel uncomfortable, but you can’t share any of the details which might allow me to take corrective action, explain my actions, or apologize to the person. Is that accurate?”

I hoped that articulating this would underscore the absurd Catch-22. Instead, Tara affirmed that indeed, it was the case. She thanked me for my time and let me know that if there was ever anything that made me uncomfortable or upset me, that I should always report it to HR.

What did I do? How could I fix this? Would there be future repercussions? Who was it?

Would this ruin my career? How could I be so blind to my own bad behavior?

Each of these questions pinballed around my brain over the coming days. It never bothered me to grate others with the truth. Some people said my direct approach to feedback helped them but left a scar. Others said they loved it and would have it no other way. I pretended to be indifferent to all of this. In actuality, I was really like Jon Lovitz, “I just want to be loved, is that so wrooong?”

Up until this point, compartmentalization had become a way of life for me. But now it failed. Every time I talked with someone that was a member of the leadership group, I wondered if it was them. Did something I’d said cause them to go to bed sad? Did I do something that bothered them so much that they felt the need to potentially take food off my family’s table? During encounters, I oscillated between an urge to self-flagellate and a desire to verbally shred them.


What I did do was…nothing. I stopped contributing to leadership meetings. Literally, I ceased talking. A mime with a perpetually tight, masseter-bulging smile. Tight-lipped smile and tighter-lipped opinions. I muzzled myself and occasionally offered my own subtle bobblehead. I didn’t want to appear to agree too ardently with something that someone might not have agreed with. No speaking. No questioning the contributors. No pushback. No redirect. No socratic questions. No five whys. After four meetings, the transition was complete. I’d become a full-blown bobblehead convert.

Until Tara called me into the HR office once again. This time there was no dread, no fear. Automatons don’t have feelings.

Tara smiled and launched right in: “You might recall that several weeks ago I shared some feedback from a person in the leadership group.”

“Yes, I recall”, with the most sincerity I could muster.

She bobbleheaded and continued. “I followed up with this person yesterday and this person shared that they’ve noticed a big improvement in your behavior. The person said they no longer feel intimidated by you.”

“That’s great to hear, Tara. Thank you for sharing. Can I tell you what I did to fix it?” This was a rhetorical question, but Tara’s radar wasn’t configured to detect rhetoric or sarcasm.

“Yes, I am eager to hear as it may be something I can share with others in the future. Only with your permission, of course.”

The dam broke. “I went completely silent. All of the skills and techniques that have enabled me to grow and develop others, everything that helped me rise in the org chart, everything that I’ve done that’s helped build this business, I stopped doing all of it. Literally, I have not uttered a single syllable in the meeting for over a month.”

Tara’s nodding slowed and she just blankly gazed at me as if her handler failed to charge her battery pack the night before.

The catharsis continued. “I stopped challenging, questioning, suggesting, or building. My silence made the person feel safe, but the leadership group made zero progress for over two months. We’re supposed to be growing a business, not coddling adult children.”

I could tell I was nearing the precipice. I caught myself and thanked Tara for bringing the issue to my attention and providing the opportunity for growth.

The leadership buzzwords jolted her battery back into action. “You’re welcome, Jason. It’s what I’m here for, and thank you for being a team player.”

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