Feb 7, 2016

It’s four in the morning and the boss is still awake

They say four in the morning is the darkest hour of all — and I agree. 

As Ray Bradbury wrote: “You’re nearest to dead you’ll ever be save dying.” At 4am, “it’s a long way back to sunset, a far way on to dawn” and all your worst fears come to haunt you. But what is it that keeps bosses awake at night?

Everyone who runs a business has their own worries. It goes with the territory. For some, it is panic about running out of cash and being unable to meet the payroll at the end of the month. Others are petrified of being overwhelmed by rising costs. Still others have nightmares over litigation, expensive claims, or being drowned in regulation and tax.

According to a study by Heathrow Express, 35% of business leaders struggle to sleep because of work concerns. And the single biggest anxiety is the state of the economy. In many ways, this is the most irrational angst of all, because an individual entrepreneur can have no influence over it.

If tension gives you insomnia, at least let your apprehension be down to a practical predicament of your own, where your decisions might deliver a solution.

Even billionaires struggle with their demons. Johann Rupert, the founder of Richemont and owner of Cartier, has said: “How is society going to cope with structural unemployment and the envy, hatred and the social warfare? We are destroying the middle classes at this stage and it will affect us. It’s unfair. So that’s what keeps me awake at night.”

Many business chiefs sleep badly because huge technological shifts are disrupting their companies and markets. What were once seen as steady industries with safe margins are being annihilated by new competitors. According to a Global CEO Outlook study by the accountancy firm KPMG, 74% of chief executives fret about innovative rivals invading their sector. After all, reinventing organisations is always hard. As the communications theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote:“Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools and yesterday’s concepts.”

I know exactly what he means — even though he wrote that in the 1960s. The KPMG study suggested that the pressure on incumbent businesses is intensifying; either their models must evolve or transform, or they will wither.

Meanwhile, a YouGov survey among small-business owners reckoned dealing with difficult suppliers or clients, and technology not working properly, were their biggest two concerns. But commercial crime appeared way down the list. That research was done a little while ago; I do wonder if cyber-crime would be much more of a priority now.

Yet none of the reports highlight what I think is perhaps the greatest stress factor for many bosses: interpersonal conflicts. My experience has been that rivalry and discord at the top — partners fighting, boards splitting, talent departing or getting fired — is the source of more troubles than anything else, especially in entrepreneurial firms. The excellent book The Founder’s Dilemmas, by Noam Wasserman, suggests that two-thirds of start-ups fail because of people problems — particularly over issues of who does what and who gets what.

I cannot explain it, but I worry more and sleep less well than I used to — even though logic tells me I don’t have as much to worry about. I suspect it is simply age, and the terror that has stalked man since time began: the dread of death. As PG Wodehouse put it: “I am strongly of the opinion that, after the age of 21, a man ought not to be out of bed and awake at four in the morning. The hour breeds thought. At 21, life being all future, it may be examined with impunity. But, at 30, having become an uncomfortable mixture of future and past, it is a thing to be looked at only when the sun is high and the world full of warmth and optimism.”

Of course, stress is surely not all bad. The educationalist Charles Frankel stated: “Anxiety is the essential condition of intellectual and artistic creation and everything that is finest in human history.” I think he had a point. Calm is all very well, but it can be pretty boring. I’m sure too much stress is debilitating, but it in reasonable doses anxiety can be productive — nerves give you energy, spurring you on, and making you feel vital and hungry to succeed. A founder who is too relaxed will not cope with the vicissitudes of fortune that characterise most business trajectories. I readily admit I am addicted to stress and challenge, and without worries I would find life dull. Often the boss who is easy-going and mild is the one who doesn’t really care.

Responsibilities are undoubtedly a burden, but conquering them makes for a richer, more fulfilled existence.

I hate to wake at 4am, my head full of possible disasters and prospective challenges. But from time to time I would rather suffer that discomfort, and live a fully engaged life, than settle for a detached, tranquil career without much risk or reward.