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The Hidden Stresses of Senior Leadership

She gestured toward an empty spot on her desk with the open palm of her hand. 
"I'm gonna put a big glass bowl of Valium here," she said. 
At that, I burst out laughing.
"Oh, it's no joke," she said, her voice lowering to a near-whisper. "I really need it."
We'd met at the gym and I didn't work with her. So she started to unload: "They" (it wasn't clear to me whether this was employees, colleagues, bosses or some combination of the three) were constantly bringing her their problems. Family stuff. Work fights. Projects that made no sense. Bothersome people. Everything.
"Shut the door," she said, putting her head down into a kind of nest made of her own elbows. "I need a break."
When she picked up her head, I learned about a meeting she'd attended that morning - the latest round of fighting over some issue or another.
Apparently someone had singled her out, blaming a decision she'd made five years ago for all the problems "it had caused us downstream."
She clenched her fist, hard, pressing it against the mahogany desktop.
"What an ignorant ass!" she said loudly. "Do you know, I don't even know him?"
I shook my head at the story, thinking, I hate office politics so much.
"Thank goodness I've learned to save every email in an Outlook folder," she said. Her voice had turned cold and steely. "Believe me I left that meeting and sent the proof of my innocence to everyone. Believe me I copied everybody!"
She glanced at her charcoal-rimmed computer monitor.
"I am praying we never have to switch to Google."
It felt like I'd been in there for a bit too long, and heard a bit too much, so I tried to lighten things up a bit so that I could make my way the hell out of there.
"Hopefully you had a good weekend," I said. "Mondays are always hard."
With that, I stood up and went for the door handle. Almost out, I thought to myself. A bit of fresh air would be good.
But she had one last thing to tell me.
"By the way, X just had a heart attack," she said. "They took him out on a stretcher."
"You're kidding," I said, surprised. This executive was literally the life of the Christmas party. 
"He has a pretty stressful job," she mused. "I wonder if he'll be coming back."
Too quickly, I replied, "He didn't really seem like the heart attack type."
My gym friend went quiet. Now I could see a tissue in her still-tightly-clenched fist, a messy wrinkle amid her beautifully manicured red nails.
"What's the heart attack type?" she asked. And with that I saw her looking around her beautifully appointed office, at all the awards on the walls. 
Suddenly it felt like I was standing with her in a cage.
Her eyes fell upon the empty spot on her desk. The spot where she had fantasized putting Valium.
"I guess I don't know," she finally said. "But I can't stop thinking about that stretcher."
Her gaze fixed on my worried eyes.
"I just hope it isn't coming for me."
Copyright 2016 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity, including the United States as a whole. Photo credit: Jim Sher / Flickr (Creative Commons)

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