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Dry January: How giving up alcohol can make you a better leader

Cover of  by Paul Oberschneider

In high-stress jobs, many people turn to drinking and partying for relief, but the effects of such habits when taken to excess can be devastating

Guest blogger Paul Oberschneider

Back in 1985 I was at the epicentre of capitalism. I was working on the trading floor on Wall Street in New York. As a floor trader I had the job, and the lifestyle, that was the envy of thousands of hungry young MBA graduates, and there was a lot of money to be made.

Today, city traders have the benefit of powerful software to process complex market data, but back then the pressure was on floor traders to take decisions. The pressure, combined with the infamous “greed is good” culture, made the life of a floor trader extremely stressful and physically demanding.

For many of us, the answer to all this stress – or so we thought – was partying hard.

This was the roaring 80s and there were distractions at every turn. We would spend our evenings eating in the East Village, Little Italy or Elain’s and drink at famous venues like Studio 54, Mud Club and The Surf Club. We’d then stagger home at 5am, grab a shower and perhaps a quick sleep, before heading back to the trading floor to do it all over again.

Knowing when to quit

The big difference between most of my friends and colleagues on Wall Street and me, was that they knew when to stop. Many of them got married and started families, but I just wanted to keep going. It wasn’t long before it became a problem. I was struggling with addictions and alcoholism, my performance at work suffered, and I was fired.

In retrospect, I think I actually already had those “isms” in my nature. On the one hand, my almost obsessive tendency lent itself very well to trading and risk-taking. On the other, however, Wall Street was perhaps the worst place for me, as the environment and culture gave me the perfect excuse to drink.

Now, I understand that some people can have just a social drink or two and stop. I couldn’t. Even so, it is worth considering if alcohol could be impacting your performance in business.

Clear thinking

Olympic athletes will do everything they can to keep their body in the best possible shape, to give them the vital edge when it comes to competition. An entrepreneur or a business leader must treat their mind in the same way. You need to be able to think clearly, to interpret information quickly and make big decisions.

I thought I could make tough decisions on the trading floor just as quickly while I was hungover. I was wrong. In fact, it was only after getting sober that I found out that most of the top-performing guys on the trading floor were actually completely teetotal.

Alcohol affects the neurotransmitters in certain areas of the brain and central nervous system. This is why it gives us the feelings of relaxation and happiness, and also why it makes us think slower.

While the alcohol may only stay in the system for 2 hours, the effects of intoxication could take 48 to 72 hours to completely disappear, so even recreational drinking could impact your performance in subsequent days at work.
Inspiring others

In 1992, after I had got sober, I decided to take a trip to Estonia. It was the country my father had come from after the war, and I wanted to learn more about my roots. I arrived in a city where I knew nobody with just my last $400 in the pocket of my jeans, so at that point I certainly didn’t have starting a business on my mind. However, over the course of the next 18 years, I managed to build real estate businesses across Central and Eastern Europe worth $200 million.

At that time I knew very little about the real estate industry, I knew nothing about the local market and I barely even spoke the language. However, I was an entrepreneur at heart, and with the kind of clear thinking I had rediscovered since getting sober, I was able to spot an opportunity.

Just as importantly, I was able to share my vision in a way that attracted and inspired a good group of people who would help make my vision a reality. That was something that I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do if I had still been drinking. Excitement is contagious, so I needed all my energy, creativity and communication skills to lead by example and make my thing their thing.

Getting the right balance

If you are going to be successful in business, whether that is as an entrepreneur or a manager, you must find the right balance between being in control and letting go. Being 100% dedicated to your business is not sustainable – you need a relief from stress or you will burn out.

However, when your stress release is impacting your performance at work, you might want to reassess whether if it is actually a good use of your time. For me, I could never have achieved what I did if I’d been drinking or doing drugs, even recreationally. Alcohol clouded my thinking, it sucked my creativity and it drained my energy, three of the most important things you will need as a business leader.

Paul Oberschneider is The BIG CHANGE Entrepreneur. He is a successful entrepreneur, speaker and the best-selling author of new book, Why Sell Tacos in Africa?, published by Harriman House. It is also available as an ebook on Amazon

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