I’m a huge believer that external facets of leadership health are largely a reflection of our internal health.
In short, if you want to lead in a healthy way, you yourself must first be healthy.
The next two parts of this series will focus on those external dynamics of healthy leadership: relationships and finances. These external (tangible) results of leadership can only be accomplished if we’ve first dealt with the internal dynamics of sustainable leadership.
This conversation is needed now more than ever. As we head toward summer, we’re all feeling the compounding stress from a year of COVID, political turmoil, economic uncertainty, and a variety of other factors.
Before we transition to the external facets of leadership health (and given the startling rise of burnout during 2020), I want to offer signs and symptoms of burnout. If you or someone you know is experiencing the following, please seek professional help. You may contact me here for coaching or reach out to a licensed therapist in your area.
Feelings of apathy about work
Questions around meaning and purpose
Using food, alcohol, or drugs to self-medicate feelings
Lack of satisfaction about work accomplished
A lack of energy
Little desire to be productive or passionate in work
Physical ailments like prolonged upset stomach, heartburn, and/or headaches.
Spiritually healthy leadership grounds high-achievers by connecting them with their purpose as they seek to influence the world. In this installment of our “Healthy Leader” series, we examine this idea of spiritually healthy leadership.
Spiritual Health: Connecting With The Divine
I spent nearly a decade in pastoral ministry before fully embracing my call as a coach. Each position led me a step closer in the process, but there was always a sense of, “this is not quite it…” when it came to feeling fulfilled.
Over the course of that decade, I learned a lot about myself, belonging in a community, healthy boundaries, interpersonal relationships, and effective communication. I spent time at every level of leadership.
At every point along the way, and with every “promotion” that was gifted to me (we can talk later about why I hate that term when applied to the church…) I found that I had fewer and fewer people to talk to. My friend list grew smaller, my mentors became fewer, and the circle of close confidants decreased.
When I started working with executives, I found the same was true with them. The higher they were on the ladder, the fewer people they had to talk to. That was, at least in part, their need for a coach. They looked around and realized they had no one to talk to.
Most of the time, I was (or at least felt) alone. The executives I worked with echoed that pain. Maybe you too can relate.
When I wasn’t alone, and people were genuinely trying to support me, we talked about a wide range of topics.
How much work I was doing
The quality of my preaching
Never once, not once in ten years, did someone ever ask: how are you at connecting with God? Is your spiritual life healthy?
A New Direction
That was part of my journey into both my doctoral school program and hiring my own coach. I needed that accountability. Studies, like one conducted by the Percept Group, seem to echo this, with nearly one-third of Los Gatos residents polled identifying “dealing with stress” as their chief spiritual concern. (1)
This in part explains the rise of contemplative prayer and mediation among leaders. There is a recognition that part of the human condition is wired to connect with something beyond ourselves.
I teach an eastern philosophy class. In it, we examine Steve Jobs’ affection for Buddhism and how other great leaders are implementing some of these teachings. These leaders are yearning for something outside of the physical and temporal to belong to.
In general then, here are some practices and guidelines to help you grow and cultivate a healthy spiritual side of leadership.
Cultivating Spiritual Health
Spiritual disciplines offer a historically rooted approach to healthy leadership. Disciplines have always been an important component for people of faith. Through self-sacrifice, we discover deeper meaning, significance, and a sense of calling.
In his seminal work on the spiritual disciplines, Richard Foster notes their importance when he says,
“The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond the surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm. They urge us to be the answer to a hollow world.” (2)
There are many forms of spiritual disciplines like fasting, prayer, mediation, holy pilgrimages, silence, forgiveness, solitude, and tithing.
The point in each of these is the same: denying some aspect of yourself or your personal will to spend time listening and connecting with God and his guiding power.
“Few things will keep us on course in the exercise of our leadership and facilitate the care of our soul as much as a meaningful prayer when engaged in consistently.” (3)
Many leaders find it hard to take regular time off. The demands of their job, the joy of feeling needed, and the unexpected crises or tendencies of workaholism can make it hard to pull away from the demands of work.
To combat this, the ancient Jewish people instituted a practice called sabbath. More than a day off, the sabbath is a specific and intentional time to rejuvenate and recharge emotionally and spiritually.
This rest includes the need for extended vacation days as well. Workers operating under increasingly stressful conditions are taking what seems to be a smart approach by working more to meet demand. The problem is that the increased workload does not equal increased productivity. In the law of diminishing return, and most studies show this, maximum productivity happens somewhere around 30-35 hours.
Operating in a job of high demand and need it’s easy to feel needed and guilty for taking time off. But a refusal to take time off can exacerbate the problem of burnout. In addition to regular Sabbath rest, leaders must use their full allotment of vacation time. This is not happening, as a 2019 study found. (4)
Staying Spiritually Fit
Spirituality can be a tough subject to talk about. The common American mantra to not talk about politics and religion has hurt our public decorum. Smart employers, and high-capacity leaders, remain vigilant in their quest for staying healthy in all areas of life.
This includes spiritual health, however, the leader defines that.
In future posts, we’ll continue to intertwine areas of health and explore how creative outputs like hobbies contribute to a well-rounded leader.
(1). Source: Ferguson, Jane K., Eleanor W. Willemsen, and MayLynn V. Castañeto. 2010. Centering prayer as a healing response to everyday stress: A psychological and spiritual process. Pastoral Psychology 59 (3) (06): 305-29.
Original Study: Percept Group. (2004). Ministry Area Profile 2004 Compass Report for Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception, 219 Bean Avenue, Los Gatos, CA 95030, Study Area Definition: Custom Polygon 1990–2004. Rancho Santa Margarita, CA: Percept Group.
(2). Source: Foster, Richard J. “The Spiritual Disciplines: Door to Liberation.” Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 1. Rev. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.
(3). Source: Rima, Samuel D. “Spiritual Self Leadership.” Leading from the Inside Out: The Art of Self-leadership, 138. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to tell yourself, “Go take a nap!”
This is a continuing series. Today’s post is “Go take a nap.” In this series, we are examining leadership burnout and the steps you need to implement as a leader to avoid (and recover from) burnout.
Contain within the Hebrew Scriptures is one of my favorite stories of all time. Written like a great movie blockbuster, this story has it all.
The beginning of a revolution.
Elijah, a prophet to the nation of Israel is confronting the King. The wicked ruler Ahab has ravaged the lady with wife, the cruel and anti-God Jezebel. Elijah, the one urging the people to remain faithful to God, can only do so by confronting the King.
In 1 Kings 18, he does just that. After years of prophecy, it is time for action. Elijah emerges from a foreign town called Zarephath (which means ‘melting pot’, probably a sign that it had economic ties to military arms production).1 Elijah, a prophet of Israel, emerges from his hiding place, located inside of Israel’s enemy, from a town producing tools to destroy Israel, to tell the king it’s time to face the music. The nerve of Elijah.
Yet as we shall see, this will also set the stage for his coming burnout.
Elijah confronts the king, his evil wife Jezebel, and her wayward prophets of Baal in a showdown to determine the true ruler of Israel. A comedic set of circumstances follow.
Elijah seemingly gives the prophets of Baal every advantage. They get to build their altar first, perhaps ending the confrontation early if Baal shows up. They get to pick the best bull for the sacrifice, and they can have as long as they want to win the showdown.
After hours of worship and devotion to Baal, the prophets begin to tire. Elijah starts taunting them. Here, many translations limit the effectiveness of this passage by saying that perhaps Baal is busy traveling, deep in thought.
A better and more literal translation has Elijah taunting the prophets of Baal that perhaps they caught him while he was going to the bathroom. Baal would surely come to their rescue just as soon as he could finish relieving himself. How embarrassing!
After taunting the prophets, Elijah changes his tone. Now, he gathers the watching Israelites and begins to instruct them in the proper way to live. The drought the nation is experiencing is because of their inability and lack of desire to follow God. The drought will end when they realize this.
He rebuilds their broken altar, has the bull sacrificed, orders water poured on it, and prays to God to accept the sacrifice. Immediately, fire from heaven consumes the offering, the altar, and the water. The people are astonished.
Elijah orders the false prophets killed and murders over 400 people. Because of their faithfulness, the people will be rewarded with rain.
Elijah warns the king to prepare. After three years of no rain, it is about to become a torrential downpour!
At the conclusion of this story, Elijah is exhausted.
Additionally, the text tells us that Elijah then flees the scene and runs to another town that was twenty miles away.
It is here that Elijah falls victim to burnout. He has started to believe his own hype and self-importance. One author comments
“Elijah, in fact, is a vivid biblical example of Freudenberger’s observation that burnout “is the letdown that comes between crises or directly after ‘mission accomplished.’”… He expended a great deal of physical, emotional, and spiritual energy in his conflict with the prophets of Baal…His success caused the Israelites and their king to come back to the worship of the only true God. Shortly after that incident, he expended more energy by climbing to the top of Mount Carmel, spending an intense period of time in prayer… and, when that prayer was answered…outran King Ahab’s chariot.”2
The story then tells us that Elijah is overwhelmed and wishes he were dead. He complains to God. To him, death is better than continuing down this path.
(On a side note, we see this in burnout all the time. It’s one leading reason why the highest spike in suicide happens on Sunday night as people start preparing to go back to a job they hate).
In words that I have come to use often on myself and others when they are feeling overwhelmed, I love God’s response.
After listening to Elijah he gives his two commands: eat something and take a nap.
Elijah, you just did something important. You accomplished a big goal. Then you ran twenty miles. You’re tired. Exhausted. Spent. Have some meat. Eat some bread. Drink some water. Then go take a nap. We’ll talk after that.
Elijah follows these commands, and wouldn’t you know it, he wakes up refreshed and ready for the next challenge.
We too need to hear these words. After significant challenges, we can fall victim to overwhelm.
Don’t listen to those voices!
In future posts, we’re going to look at specific ways to prevent and fight against burnout. For now, it is enough to know this: if you’re exhausted, eat something and then go take a nap. We can talk after that.
This is a continuing series. Today’s post is An Introduction to Burnout (Part 2). In this series, we are examining leadership burnout and the steps you need to implement as a leader to avoid (and recover from) burnout.
An Introduction to Burnout (Part 2)
In his book Ministry Burnout: A Special Problem, John Sanders writes about the elements leading to burnout. While he is specifically addressing leadership in the church, the reality holds for every position of leadership. Initially, John’s list contained nine elements. I’ve adapted and combined some as it relates specifically to general leadership health.
As a result, in a follow-up to my last post, we need to examine these six stressors that can lead to leadership burnout. In this article, we will examine the first three causes, and a follow-up article will examine the last three.
While none of these by themselves lead directly to burnout, a combination of these six events can. Be wise and pay attention to what is going on in your soul and get professional help if you need it.
1.) The leader’s job is never finished.
I remember sitting on my bed, gasping for air. I was in the midst of a full-blown panic attack. The weight on my chest would lift and I found myself unable to breathe. My wife, in her best attempt to reassure me, held my head as I half-gasped-for-air-half-cried.
The mounting pressure from weeks of over-commitment was getting to me. I was building my coaching business, often investing thirty hours a week into my then part-time venture. I was still on staff at a church, working sixty hours a week during the Christmas season. I was also in the midst of doctoral school and we had just had our third child. Weeks of poor sleep, nutrition, and exercise left my body debilitated.
As I created a list of all I still had yet to do, it all became too much. As I sat on our bed, wondering whether to call an ambulance, I eventually fell. Honestly, I’m still not sure if it was falling asleep from exhaustion or passing out from lack of oxygen. Either way, I took a four nap, whether I wanted to or not.
I’ve learned a lot from that moment. Though the leader’s job is never finished, I now find that a much more welcoming prospect. I now give myself the freedom to admit that since the job won’t be finished, I might as well take some time off and enjoy what’s going on around me.
If you find yourself mounting with fear and overwhelm at the prospect of all you have to do, this can be one indicator on the road to burnout.
2.) A lack of clear results.
There are few things a leader can find more frustrating than this. Investing countless hours into a project, spilling blood, sweat, and tears, only to be given ambiguous results. How disheartening!
When I first started coaching, I agreed to give someone free coaching. I thought it would be a win-win. They’d get some (hopefully) great coaching and I’d get to practice and implement some of the theories I’d been working on.
Instead, it was a lose-lose. With no monetary investment, he never had need to change. He said he wanted coaching and really wanted to grow but never put in the effort. On the outside, he claimed to want a promotion. Internally, his lack of desire and discipline proved why he’d never get it.
I also lost. I invested 60-90 minutes into an individual for almost two years before I humbled myself to call off our arrangement. I got zero usable feedback, unclear results, and a bad taste in my mouth.
If we’re not clear about the results, and if we don’t measure the right things, our frustration can quickly lead to burnout. Unfortunately, working with people can be a prime breeding ground for unclear results. This is why I’ve implemented a wide array of team-oriented goals in coaching.
Now, not only do we measure tangibles like product production, sales, marketing, and bottom-line numbers; we also measure relational and interpersonal goals. We examine personal satisfaction. I help my teams put measures on metrics that are often left undefined. Through team-building leadership assessments, you need to find a way to create positive experiences and measurables that provide motivation and encouragement for your team.
3.) Workplace repetition
As I stood on my college campus lawn thirty minutes after graduation, I wondered what life held next for me. Suddenly, it wasn’t cool to be unemployed. Instead of a college student, I was a college graduate. I was recently married and we found ourselves without income. When my brother asked me what was next, I said, “I dunno. I guess now I just work until I die.” Had I followed my own advice, that probably wouldn’t have been that long of a cycle.
In the workplace, leaders often face a similar dilemma. Think of your own workday. I’m guessing there are a number of tasks you can count on occurring on a regular basis. Jane is 15 minutes late, Bill shows up at your desk around 10:30 to unnecessarily distract you for thirty minutes, your boss needs a last-minute report that should’ve been done weeks ago, and you get stuck in traffic by missing the elevator and having to wait another five minutes.
On top of that, you seem to make the same thirty copies every day. It’s boring. It’s dull. It takes little if any brainpower.
That, ultimately, is the real danger, but the repetition can be a sign of impending burnout. Showing up every day, repeating the same tasks, feeling the same soul-crushing boredom, leads to discontentment. Discontedness leads to apathy. Apathy gives birth to burnout. You know you were created for more and aren’t living to your full potential, so you slowly start to die inside.
Engaging in the same tasks, especially the unfilling ones, can lead to burnout. Find ways to stimulate your brain, engage your body, challenge your senses, and enhance your prospects by breaking through the routine and trying something new.
4.) Stagnant Relationships
If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. This unattributable proverb gives us great insight into the impending doom of burnout.
The unhealthy pervasive “Alpha” mentality in today’s leadership style has ingrained the idea that exceptional leaders must go it alone. This is never the case. Instead, great leaders have always had others close to them. They use these relationships as feedback, guidance, additional wisdom, course correction, diversity, strategy, and companionship.
David Heenan wrote about great Co-leaders in the late ’90s. He highlighted men duos like Jobs and Cook, Gates and Ballmer, and Hellen Keller with her teacher Anne Sullivan.
If you ever listen to a talk I give, we’re probably going to talk about the pairing of Lincoln and Grant. As a fan of history in general, these two men in particular have inspired me. Here, it is their unwavering commitment to each other that matters most. Their letters, starting out formal, by the end conveys a sense of warmth and deep friendship. If Lincoln had had his way, Grant would’ve been in the audience with him the night of his assassination.
In all of these, the point is the same: your level of success, and your ability to resist burnout, is directly related to the amount of deep and meaningful relationships you have.
When we have stagnant relationships, we begin to rely solely on our own power. We convince ourselves of the false belief that others don’t matter. We begin to distance ourselves from those that love us most, we simultaneously isolate our hearts from the thing it needs most: human interaction.
If you examine your life and notice that it is either void of significant relationships or that they have become stagnant, be forewarned: burnout is soon to follow.
5.) The Pressure of a Public Image
Leading others is somehow both a tremendous joy and an unbearable burden. It brings us unimaginable happiness and gives manifestation to our deepest insecurities.
That pressure can get to you. When you as a leader constantly feel the need to maintain your public image, burnout can happen.
While there are many causes and reasons for this, in my work with executives I’ve noticed one factor more than others. The number one cause I’ve seen is that the person becomes defined by the position. The belief that you alone can lead, you alone are called, you alone are capable, you alone are good enough presents an unbearable burden on your soul. Unable to maintain that image for long, you further isolate yourself from those around you.
Pair that self-imposed isolation with other items on this list, and burnout will quickly follow.
This final item, much like the preceding one, becomes an issue when it becomes wrapped up in identity. When you start to see the subtle shift in your psyche between, “I experienced failure” and “I am a failure,” trouble is on the horizon.
Failure is an inevitable and unavoidable part of life. Many times, it should actually be encouraged more than it is. We learn more from failures than we do successes. I recently gave my oldest son his first pocket knife. After walking through safe handling techniques, how to open and close it, how to hold it, store it, and use it to cut effectively, I handed him the knife. I concluded the lesson by saying, “But I also know that the only way to learn sometimes is the hard way. So you’ll probably cut yourself and we’ll put a band-aid on it. You’ll learn not to do it again.”
I handed him the knife. Within fifteen seconds he had cut his thumb open. The next day, cut open a different finger.
Since then, he hasn’t cut himself. He learned. The hard way. Through failure.
It was a painful but effective lesson.
But when we begin to tie up our identity into our failure, we create a vicious cycle, much like we saw above. We experience failure, feel like we alone must fix it, isolate others, fail again, and our leadership trends downward.
Very few, if any, of these six causes to burnout happen in isolation. Most often, they are paired with others on the list. The relentless nature of leadership lends itself to moments of frustration, anger, bitterness, and resentment. Healthy leaders will fight against that. In future editions of this series, we’re going to examine ways to stay healthy and fight these temptations.
Over the next several weeks, I want to provide an overview and examination of leadership burnout. With the world quickly changing in 2020 and 2021, burnout has unsurprisingly been on the rise. Here are some things you need to know.
A Basic Understanding of Burnout
In May of 2014, with the last speaker winding up his talk in the main auditorium, I sat just outside the building in tears.
The past week had been eye-opening. As I sat with my wife trying to process everything, I came to a realization: I was all alone.
At the time, I was serving as the pastor of a small church in a large city. The past year-and-a-half had seen me transition from a one-year contracted associate to the lead person when the other pastor stepped down. The church was dying, marred by years of unhealthy leadership and unsustainable practices.
I had reached out to other leaders and superiors at other churches and was told there wasn’t much they could do. Their resources and energy was going to be spent elsewhere.
I started doctoral school to try to find answers. What I found, were more questions. The passion in my soul to help others was not happening. Instead, I seemed to be facing mounting frustration, fear, and failure.
Is this how all leaders feel? I wondered.
Burnout, at least in the course of my own educational journey, was never talked about. I took classes in dynamic leadership, speaking, counseling, Greek, Hebrew, and social justice. Never once was burnout mentioned.
In May of 2014, I wasn’t burnt out … yet … but I also knew I couldn’t continue with “business as usual.”
I reached out to a professional counselor I knew. He was a professor at the school where I did my master’s program.
“How do you all avoid burnout?” I asked.
His response changed my life.
“We talk about it. We talk about it a lot. From early on and throughout the program we frame it as an ethical mandate and don’t give people a choice. We tell them from day one that they have an ethical mandate and responsibility to themselves, their clients, and to God to be healthy in all areas of their life.”
What is burnout?
Burnout is a psychological condition resulting from chronic work-related stress and has three central factors: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of personal accomplishment.1
The trouble with burnout is not only the personal aspect of damage it can cause but the relational and financial aspects as well. Burnout is difficult to pin down because it can occur at any time and with little warning.
There are two primary foci that need to be addressed to create a long-term sustainable solution to burnout in leadership. One focus is the personal sphere, something that encompasses the totality of our humanity. Later in the series, we’ll talk about the pictured pyramid (pictured below) and how we can use it to effectively fight against burnout.
The second area affected by burnout is the cultural dimension of work. This is what is so often overlooked.
Maslach and Leiter in their book The Truth About Burnout highlight the great disservice that is done when burnout is discussed only in terms of the personal sphere:
“The conventional wisdom is that burnout is primarily a problem of the individual. That is, people burnout out because of flaws in their characters, behavior, or productivity. According to this perspective, people are the problem, and the solution is to change them or get rid of them. But our research argues most emphatically otherwise. As a result of extensive study, we believe that burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the social environment in which people work. The structure and functioning of the workplace shape how people interact with one another and how they carry out their jobs. When the workplace does not recognize the human side of work, then the risk of burnout grows, carrying a high price with it.”2 (Emphasis retained)
To effectively address burnout, we must talk about both the cultural and personal aspects it entails. We will do this in future blog posts.