The Inevitable: How Contemplating Mortality Can Yield Better Leadership and Higher Employee Engagement

The Inevitable: How Contemplating Mortality Can Yield Better Leadership and Higher Employee Engagement

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For years I’ve been checking the Sunday obituaries, the week’s comprehensive guide to who’s recently relinquished life, replete with occasionally entertaining and inspirational biographies. I suspect that most young—or young at heart—readers relegate this section to the bottom of the gerbil cage, but I’ve been a fairly loyal reader and, up until now, didn’t completely understand why. Some people will say that they’re just making certain their names aren’t included, but even I, at an age where I can no longer put my socks on without a cacophony of moaning and grunting, have enough presence of mind to know that I won’t find “Howard ‘Howie’ Milstein” in there. So why my interest?

Outside the consideration of some spiritually held beliefs, chances are that death represents a rather permanent state. Certainly a significant lifecycle event (for both the survivors and deceased), the empirical evidence of anything happening after the last light goes out, other than a return to basic elements, is sparse at best. Now, one might subscribe to an afterlife model such as reincarnation, but even if you do return, it could be as an earthworm on a deserted island. The point being that, if you want to have any impact on our planet and its inhabitants, it’s a really good idea to take advantage of your time prior to making the obit pages.

Focusing on how you want to be remembered will inform your behaviors today and help you lead in ways that are most beneficial to your business.

I have come to the realization that, even though I won’t be reading my own obituary, epitaph or eulogy, I do want those words to reflect that I did something good with my life, that I impacted the world and people positively, and that my surviving friends and family would consider my past existence as a model for a life worth living. In other words, I want my LEGACY to be that I’m leaving the world’s inhabitants in a little better place than when I entered it.

Reading the weekly obits is a way for me to contemplate my mortality, regularly check in with the legacy I’ll be leaving, and help inform my behavior as a father, husband, friend, brother, uncle, community advocate and BUSINESS GUY. One question is whether contemplating one’s mortality leads to good behaviors, bad behaviors or both. Thankfully the world of psychology has examined the effect of mortality salience on things like anxiety, negative effects and positive effects.

Apparently this topic has been quite compelling, as a meta-analysis (examination of many studies) titled When Death is Good for Life: Considering the Positive Trajectories of Terror Management (K.E. Vail et. al.), published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review in 2012, is 27 exhaustive pages long! I’ll spare you all the details, but they do come to the conclusion that mortality salience can work wonders.

Much of the research and discussion centers on something called Terror Management Theory (TMT)—yikes! Why they don’t call it Stuff That Can Happen When Thinking About Your Death (STCHWTAYD) I don’t know, but you can rest assured that this is all a THEORY. Otherwise they might have called it a principle, law or axiom, so relax.

According to the article, mortality awareness can be manifest in some pretty negative behaviors, particularly when a person may suffer from anxiety or low self-esteem. Drug abuse, risky driving or eating too many Big Macs are examples of behaviors by people who figure the inevitability of death doesn’t give them a reason to live.

On the other hand, mortality salience can result in behaviors that minimize harm to oneself and others promoting “well-being in physical, social and psychological domains.” The authors call this Positive, or Optimal Terror Management, which still sounds a little like sitting down for a nice dinner with the Addams Family. Examples of positive behaviors include volunteering, exercising and adopting children or pets.

The side effects of managing your legacy now include a business where engagement is high, innovation operates at all levels, customer experience is through the roof and you’re making more money than you ever imagined.

The positive effects of mortality contemplation, if you want your legacy to be as a trusted, respected and well-liked leader, also include treating your coworkers with dignity and respect (aha, the bottom line you were waiting for!). And the side effects of managing your legacy now include a business where engagement is high, innovation operates at all levels, customer experience is through the roof and you’re making more money than you ever imagined.

How does this work? Let’s look at a few theoretical scenarios and consider responses that incorporate how we’d like to be remembered:


Scenario: By definition, your salesforce has one representative who is at the bottom of the performance ladder, perhaps as defined by revenue growth over the same period last year.


Option 1: If you didn’t consider your legacy, you might just take this sales rep to task, admonishing him for lacking sales skill, being complacent, not working hard enough or not caring—all rather personal attacks that would probably instill great fear of you, losing his job and looking like a loser.

Option 2: However, if being remembered as a great, trusted, caring leader is important to you, you might decide to approach this situation with the understanding that the sales rep is ALREADY AFRAID, since they know how they rank. You decide to first acknowledge how that rep might be feeling, take some time to understand whether the territory has mitigating circumstances that might be the cause of low revenue generation, and take some time to brainstorm ways to improve sales.

Option 2 leaves the rep’s dignity intact, maintains his respect for you and retains his motivation to get up the next day, try hard and nurture relationships with customers. Option 1 inspires the rep to update his resume and scour the job boards and have you indelibly etched in his mind as bully.


Scenario: Your employee in charge of researching and selecting a mobile phone contract failed to notice an early exit clause that would be economically painful. Needing to change providers owing to coverage issues, the company gets slapped with a surprise multi-thousand dollar penalty, one that wasn’t taken into consideration prior to making the change.


Option 1: If a positive legacy isn’t important to you, you angrily admonish her—even publicly—for making this mistake and costing the company thousands of dollars. You take away her responsibility for phone contracts and make it clear that you don’t trust her with key projects. Even before you “spoke” with her, the employee freaked out the instant she knew the business got dinged by the phone company and was quite concerned about job security, being embarrassed in front of her peers and was nursing major head and stomach aches.

Option 2: Acknowledging to yourself that it’s no fun to lose money to mistakes, and recognizing that this isn’t the first and won’t be the last time mistakes cost money, you decide that you are a highly-evolved leader and opt for a cool-headed approach. You speak privately with the employee, letting her know how afraid you’d be if you made that mistake and that even you make mistakes to this day. You make certain she understands the mechanisms behind the mistake, she knows how to avoid them in the future and then you select her as the phone contract manager for life.

Option 2 leaves the employee feeling engaged, part of the same human race that you’re a part of and grateful for your trust and confidence. She becomes a much more astute analyzer of contracts, loyal to you and the company and committed to self-improvement. Option 1 leaves you as the favorite topic of hushed water-cooler talks, with your employees unwilling to share innovative ideas, emotionally checked-out and physically out of the building before 5:01 p.m.

Focusing on how you want to be remembered will inform your behaviors today and help you lead in ways that are most beneficial to your business. As Victor Frankl, psychologist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, writes “without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.” And as Vail et. al. conclude, ‘the conscious awareness of mortality can motivate people to enhance their physical health, reprioritize intrinsically meaningful goals and values, and build positive relationships with friends, family and loved ones.” I’d like to specifically add employees and co-workers to that list, giving you what you ultimately want—a vital business!

Howie Milstein
Provocateur and Leadership Doctor

One Response

  1. Madeline Lenox
    | Reply

    Well done Howard. Madeline

Spill your guts.