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3 Shifts to Stop Leadership Burnout

Burnout is a growing problem. In fact, burnout is the #1 reason for employee absenteeism and attrition. We try to bolster employee morale through engagement, but by the time burnout occurs, engagement can be too little and too late. In essence, the disengagement is only a symptom of the greater issue – stress that is unmanageable.

Leadership also feels the same burn of burnout as their teams. As a CEO, I experienced burnout firsthand at about ten years into my first business. I caught myself regularly entertaining fantasies of taking on a “low stress job” and checking out. I gained weight and lost sleep. My relationships and my immune system suffered. My adrenal glands were overtaxed, and I was quick to snap. I felt trapped by a substantial income and unsupported at every level.

A number of my corporate executive clients also mention symptoms of burnout onset to me regularly, sometimes without fully realizing where the symptoms can lead. Of course, burnout certainly isn’t limited to enterprise scale organizations. Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, is very open about her personal burnout several years ago that led to a physical collapse. I have known meeting professionals who run their own micro-businesses to have heart attacks in their hotel rooms during a conference.

Leaders you might think are immune because of their passion and purpose, such as ministers and non-profit executives also drop out, frustrated and exhausted. Then there is the small business owner who tries valiantly for a year or two to push through in their new venture, and then returns to working for someone else, utterly overwhelmed, fed up and depleted.

According to a “Classics” article in the Harvard Business Review, (which won a second place McKinsey Award) there are a handful of predictable situations responsible for leader burnout. The article explains roles and responsibilities the leaders faced were:

  1. repetitive or prolonged;

  2. placed enormous burdens on the [leaders];

  3. promised great success but made attaining it nearly impossible;

  4. exposed the managers to risk of attack for doing their jobs, without providing a way for them to fight back;

  5. aroused deep emotions—sorrow, fear, despair, compassion, helplessness, pity, and rage; to survive, the managers would try to contain their feelings and hide their anguish;

  6. overwhelmed the [leaders] with complex detail, conflicting forces, and problems against which they hurled themselves with increasing intensity but without impact;

  7. exploited the [leaders] but provided them little to show for having been victimized;

  8. aroused an inescapable sense of inadequacy and often of guilt;

  9. left the [leaders] feeling that no one knew, let alone gave a damn about, what price they were paying, what contribution or sacrifice they were making, or what punishment they were absorbing;

  10. caused the [leaders] to raise the question ‘What for?’—as if they’d lost sight of the purpose of living.

Let’s face it – if the alarm bells are going off for you after reading that list from Harvard Business Review, no one is coming to put the fire out for you. You need to stop your own burnout and put these 3 high-impact burnout-enders to work immediately.

Burnout Stopper #1: Never Go It Alone

In every burnout situation there is a component of isolation. The small business owner tries to do everything themselves because they “just can’t afford the help”. The new executive spends long hours and weekends because “this has to get fixed before I can turn it over to my team” or worse “I don’t have the right team in place yet.” The non-profit leader “can’t find the resources willing to step up and volunteer”. As a result of money challenges, situational disarray, or community disinterest, many leaders find themselves carrying the load of 3-4 people, which is just not sustainable.

If you are in this untenable situation yourself, either by default, or by demand, it is a red flag to hit the brakes, and get assistance immediately. The alternative is potentially life threatening, or at the very least, career limiting. This is no easy task in a society that predominantly rewards leaders who carry more responsibility than is actually advisable. In fact, many organizations appear to regard leaders seeking additional assistance as weak, deficient, incapable, disloyal, or “a poor leader”.

Don’t let that stop you.

There are many ways to get help when you make it a priority. In fact, getting the right help actually empowers both the leader and the organization. Here are some of the best resources available:

  1. An executive/leadership/business coach. Far from a vanity expense, really good coaches provide a broader perspective, accountability, structure and goal setting that is almost impossible to do by oneself. They also have access to the experience of other executives and leaders who have similar experiences, and solutions for exactly the challenges you may be facing.

  2. A Mastermind group. Like the coach, Mastermind groups are rich with the experience of your peers. The numerous viewpoints and safe mastermind platform allows for sharing our biggest challenges, and helps leaders to work through problems much faster than simple trial and error.

  3. A specialist or personal assistant. If you are doing the work of 3-4 people, it’s time to put at least one more on your payroll. This might be a bookkeeper, a virtual assistant, a web designer, a social media expert, a personal assistant, a mother’s helper, a dog walker, or any number of niche support staff who can handle details that allow you to stay focused on what only you can do in your business or organization.

  4. Peer Networking. Many leaders look at networking solely from the viewpoint of lead generation, and that certainly can be a substantial part of it. However, networking also grows your access to information, insights, resources and professional credibility. It is important to find the right networking group for a broad spectrum of benefits, and not all networking opportunities are created equal, but it’s worth sifting through them to find those that are, and then show up to receive all they really do have to offer.

Burnout Stopper #2: Keep Your Center

In skydiving, keeping our center of gravity (which is located just above our naval) pointed at the ground at all times means the difference between controlling our free fall, or careening wildly at 120 miles per hour. In fitness, it is our core (or our center) that must be strengthened first and foremost for balance and maximum effectiveness.

This crucial importance of our physical center is mirrored in our mental, emotional and spiritual centers. They are what keep us from meltdowns, breakdowns and yes, burnout, in the face of business that can feel like it is rushing at us at 120 miles per hour.

Our emotional and spiritual center resides in our personal desires and sense of purpose. Unfortunately, many leaders are moving so fast towards external success (money, material goods, credentials, public acknowledgement, awards, etc.) they have not done much internal work to assess their own motivations. When this is the case, the spiritual and emotional infrastructure is not strong enough to withstand or respond to an all-out assault from a pre-burnout situation.

Happily the number of books, sites and thought-leaders focusing on finding our purpose and our why (Simon Senek’s Start With Why,, Bob Burg’s Go Giver series, and Reinventing Organizations which altered the organizational structure of Zappos) is growing steadily. The idea that we are wired to find personal fulfillment from the inside out, rather than the reverse is finally gaining public acceptance. Not only that – a parallel notion that we are here to be of service to others right along with ourselves is woven into this message of personal meaning.

Although culturally, we do not teach our children to identify their purpose, it is not difficult to do so. It lies at the intersection of where we have tremendous skill and talent, and where we lose ourselves in the doing. These are the things we would do all day, forgetting the time, and seeing the appreciation on the faces of those whom we benefit. This is as true for a doctor as it is for an accountant, and for a manufacturing executive as for a minister.

Truly, there is nothing more motivating to a leader in the midst of a challenging situation than knowing they are doing work of real importance – both for themselves, and for countless others. We require wealth in order to survive and thrive, but no 7-figure salary can intercede when burnout looms – only our purpose can.

Burnout Stopper #3: Stay Fully Present

Mindfulness has become a popular topic of late. The theory of mindfulness is that it keeps us fully present in the moment, without obsessing over the past, or worrying about the future. The result of successful mindfulness is less stress, better health, clearer focus, greater creativity, increased performance and richer relationships and experiences. However, leaders battling burnout are unlikely to practice mindfulness; instead, expressing a sense of near panic, dread and desperation in a number of areas.

The good news is that the scattered and anxious energy of burnout can actually be transformed fairly quickly through mindfulness exercises. Their healing qualities are quite fast, and effective, once they are activated.

The “bad” news is that mindfulness requires daily practice, especially in the midst of intense, draining environments, and often feels less important than the current crisis. Burnout almost always arises from a reaction to external circumstances, which feel far more “real” than any ancient centering exercise, and so the novice can quickly drop the practice of centering in favor of reacting to the crisis in front of them.

However, those who practice mindfulness techniques regularly swear by them, and often claim that they are better able to deal with crises that arise with clarity and decisiveness than when they don’t center themselves regularly.

Simple mindfulness exercises include:

  1. Meditation

  2. Journaling

  3. Breath Work

  4. Yoga

  5. Tai Chi

  6. Inspirational Readings/Contemplation

They are best done as early in the morning as possible, and prior to engaging in any texting, emailing, or other media viewing. Research seems to support that even small doses of these activities can provide a dramatic shift in sleep quality, heart rates, blood pressure, and mental focus.

A leader who finds themselves in the midst of burnout needs to slow down in order to speed up. By taking these three powerful steps, they will lead the way for others out of the fires of burnout.

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