Boiling Frog Syndrome: The Silent Threat to Leadership

Are you familiar with the Boiling Frog analogy? It illustrates how we might not notice gradual changes until it’s too late to act.

The analogy goes like this: if you put a frog into boiling water, it will jump out immediately, sensing the danger. But, if you place a frog in cool water and then slowly heat it, the frog won’t recognise the gradual increase in temperature and will remain in the water until it’s too late, ultimately leading to its demise.

Leaders and managers often face the risk of the ‘Boiling Frog Syndrome’ without even realising it. The pressure to perform, innovate, and manage can incrementally increase, leading to stress and, eventually, burnout. Recognising the signs of this gradual increase in stress is crucial for Csuite executives, managers, and leaders across sectors. Ignoring these signs can have severe implications not only for the individual’s wellbeing but also negatively impact the health and performance of the organisation.

Ignoring the Signs of Stress for the Overloaded Leader and Manager

The journey from stress to burnout can be insidious, with many leaders rationalising or overlooking the early warning signs. According to Beyond Blue, these signs include feeling:

  • Isolated or trapped.
  • Irritable.
  • A lack of your usual energy or motivation.
  • Less satisfied with work.
  • Exhausted or drained.
  • A sense of procrastination.
  • Disengaged from work you used to value.
  • Changes in sleeping patterns, not sleeping like you usually do.

These symptoms can gradually escalate, leading to a state where leaders feel utterly depleted, impacting their decisionmaking, creativity, and ability to lead effectively.

The consequences of unaddressed stress in leadership roles extend beyond individual health. It can lead to a domino effect, impacting team morale, productivity, and, ultimately, the organisation’s bottom line.

The role of a leader or manager is not just to direct but to inspire and motivate. However, a leader struggling with stress and burnout cannot fulfil this role effectively, leading to a cycle of underperformance and disengagement within their teams and, of course, personal heartache.

Recognising and Addressing Stress

The first step in combating the Boiling Frog Syndrome in leadership is recognition. Leaders need to be vigilant of the gradual increases in stress and the warning signs of burnout. Acknowledging that one is not immune to stress is a sign of strength, not weakness.

From recognition comes action. Strategies to manage stress include:

  • Setting clear boundaries between work and personal time.
  • Delegating tasks to distribute the workload more evenly.
  • Seeking support through professional development programs, mentorship, or executive coaching.
  • Implementing regular checkins with oneself to assess wellbeing and adjust work habits accordingly.

Case Study: Steve engaged an external service to evaluate his team, and the feedback was eyeopening. Teammates and subordinates viewed him as unapproachable, touchy, and somewhat avoidant. Unbeknownst to them, Steve was grappling with a family health crisis that demanded much of his attention. At the same time, he was under immense pressure from shareholders to boost performance metrics and reduce staffing levels, a directive that clashed with his values. Despite these challenges, Steve remained committed to his role as a motivated and inspiring leader, a commitment that made it difficult for him to share his struggles.

Caught in a situation he had not fully acknowledged, Steve found himself metaphorically in that boiling water. The feedback served as a critical juncture, prompting him to seek change. Through our coaching sessions, it became clear that Steve’s drive for perfection and a deepseated sense of responsibility for everything, traits rooted in his childhood, were contributing to his stress and anxiety. His charismatic demeanour had long camouflaged these issues, even from himself, until his charm began to wane under the weight of his challenges.

Executive coaching proved radically transformative for Steve. Steve reported back that he was feeling calm, more regulated and selfaware. His delegation skills improved, and team members made positive comments within weeks. He was also able to better navigate his personal life with more clarity and relief. His feedback was: I wish I had done this years ago a game changer, life changer and I am so grateful.

Fostering a Culture of Wellbeing

Leaders have the unique opportunity to set the tone for their organisation’s approach to wellbeing. By prioritising their health and openly discussing the challenges of stress and burnout, leaders can encourage a more supportive and understanding workplace culture. This includes promoting worklife balance, offering resources for stress management, and creating an environment where employees feel valued and heard. They may even consider a workshop to elevate and educate their team!

By becoming aware of the signs of stress and taking proactive steps to manage it, leaders can safeguard their wellbeing and the health of their organisations. Remember, recognising the need for change is the first step out of the warming waters and toward a more sustainable future in leadership.


Note: we have changed the names and circumstances of the Case studies mentioned to protect the anonymity of our clients.  

About Sally

As a former international opera singer, Sally Wilson knows a thing or two about being at the top of your field. And she’s discovered first-hand what it feels like to step away from the spotlight and lose your identity.

Through coaching, Sally helps her clients let go of their self-sabotaging beliefs and discover freedom, joy and fulfillment. As an accredited TRTP™ practitioner, Sally uses evidence-based practices to create changes that are quick, safe and lasting.

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