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.
Holistic leadership health includes physical health. Your body was made to move. It not only provides physical benefit but mental and emotional health as well.
Your Body Was Made To move
During my master’s program, I was extraordinarily unhealthy. I honestly stopped stepping on the scale after it read 250, but if I had to guess I got much closer to 260 or 270. I was overweight, had issues sleeping, bought the biggest pants I’d ever owned, and masked my feelings through food.
Shortly after graduation, my family moved from California to Denver and Elise became pregnant with our second child. My sleeping had gotten worse and I literally could not make it through a single day without taking a nap. My weight ballooned closer to 280.
Finally, I had enough. I bought a membership to the local community rec center and hit the weights. I was weak and I was tired, but I was determined.
Soon, after that, I began to clean up my eating.
Along came babies three and four, and new responsibilities at work. The pressure was mounting.
This time, however, I exercised the stress away, rather than attempting to eat my feelings away.
By the time we left Denver to move back to California, I was down over 40 pounds. While 240 was still much too heavy for me, I was on the right path.
Three years later, I’m now a trim 215 and in the best shape of my life. I now find it more of a struggle to not work out than to go hit the weights. My morning routine includes 30-40 minutes of weight training in the morning and a 10-20 minute walk in the evening.
Lead Through Physical Health
Healthy leaders who care about avoiding burnout take their own physical health seriously.
I know this because I suffered from burnout while being extremely physically unhealthy.
I also know this because I’ve worked with dozens of leaders over the years and have seen it play out time and time again.
If your work schedule consists of more fast food than fitness, you’re in for a world of pain.
Healthy leaders know to move their bodies and stay in great shape. Physical shape and your ability to control yourself around food often say as much about your emotional and mental health as anything else. I’ve seen it enough, it’s almost a guarantee: if you are unfit physically, you’re also likely unfit emotionally and mentally.
Benefits of Exercise
There are numerous benefits to exercise. Exercise has been shown to:
Release the brain’s happy chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.
Improve your mood.
Increase sex drive
Promote better sleep
Fight off infection
and Balance hormones
Made To Move
Our bodies were made to move. It’s why I added a personal training certification to my coaching packages years ago and constantly work with my clients to achieve optimal health. Our bodies, when not in motion, experience degradation.
Sitting, quite literally, kills you.
Whether it’s taking frequent walks around your office, your block, or your neighborhood, your body is made to move.
If you’re struggling, start small. At my heaviest, I had no grand illusions. I never wanted to “run a marathon” (still don’t!) but I did want to make it to the gym three times in the first week. Next, I tried hard to go three days without dessert. Then, I challenged myself to sleep through the night. I replaced an overabundance of coffee with more water.
Make a small but significant step today to seize control of your health. Call a friend and go for a walk. Eat an apple instead of a donut. Head to bed on time instead of binging your favorite television show.
Each time you intentionally make a stand for your own health, your leadership capabilities improve. More than that, you care for those around you.
People are counting on you to show up, perform at a high level, and influence those around you.
When it doubt, move your body. Your body was made to move!
The mental health of a leader encompasses everything they do to stay at peak performance and elite levels of people development. Leadership mental health is the foundation to sustainable excellence.
Beginning in Coaching
I fell in love with coaching because it gave me something tangible to work towards. Fresh out of my master’s program and stepping into a new workplace, it was actually required that I have a coach for the first year of employment. They paid for it, I benefited from it.
Little did I know that at 24, it would be a life-changing experience.
My first coach, Jeff, helped me see the bigger side of life and leadership. Leaders struggle and leaders fall. Because of this, leaders can’t bear the weight of responsibility themselves.
Good leaders surround themselves with others. Those that will both listen and challenge. Strong leaders embrace the chance to be pushed and to be bettered.
Most of all, leaders take their own growth seriously.
The Faces of Mental Health
Mental health, like a diamond, has many faces to it. Here are several of the types of mental health I talk about with my clients:
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it does provide us with healthy ways to get started – or continue – our journey of holistic leadership health.
One of the most frequent questions I get is, “What’s the difference between counseling and coaching?” Both are in the ‘helping professions’ and both have their place. I’ve experienced both. I’ve benefitted from both over the years. I need both in my life to help me be at my best. So here, in brief, are the differences.
Counseling – The benefit of counseling is that it looks backward in the leader’s journey. Addressing pain points, unresolved issues, family dynamics, trauma, and emotional scars (among other things) counseling provides a safe place for leaders to stop, pause, and reflect on where their life has come from.
Coaching – Coaching is predominately future-focused. Instead of needing details when clients give me their history, they give me the “5-minute version.” I need to know enough to ask good questions, not about where they’ve been, but about where they want to go. Coaching helps individuals get from point A to point F quicker, easier, and more proactively.
Other Investments In Mental Health
Leaders are readers. If you’re not reading, you will never reach your full potential. I regularly send out my current reading lists and those I see on other websites. I challenged myself as much as possible through a wide variety of genres. Thoughtful leaders engage in history, economics, biographies, fiction, and a wide variety of personal development books.
Seminars and Conferences
Learning from others is a great way to get a quick return on your investment. Find a local or national tradeshow, expo, or conference related to your line of work. Attend regularly, take notes, and write key takeaways from your learning. Years ago, I made it a practice to take the conference notes I took and create a three-step action plan after each one. The amount of new information can be overwhelming and this helped simplify it for me and gave me quick wins when I returned to my normal daily routine.
There are two major time wasters in our daily living: our exercise habits and our commute times. I’ve given up music 95% of the time in favor of podcasts. Exercise six days a week gives me ample time to squeeze in an extra book or podcast. Additionally, I spend an average of 10-15 hours driving every week. I can get in an extra book a month on average just by listening to books and podcasts in the car.
Our leadership journeys are often moving at a frenetic pace. Meetings, sales, marketing, investing in others, family time, it can all feel overwhelming. One of the greatest assets you can give yourself is the ability to stop. Breath. Contemplate. Refresh. Retreats are a way to intentionally withdraw from the day-to-day grind and gain some long-term perspective.
This is so important we’re going to dedicate another post to it, but the benefits of exercise extend far beyond physical health. Exercise releases chemicals in our brain that make us happier, gives us an energy boost, reframes our perspective, provides inspiration, increases productivity, and stimulates growth.
Growing leaders must be all in on their own health, as this series has shown. Mental health is a critical component of that. This includes both traditional approaches to mental health, as well as positive habits that increase our brain capacity and stimulate our own growth. Leadership mental health is a commitment to yourself and to others to continually execute improvement.
How would you answer the question: why on earth am I on earth?
The foundation for all healthy leadership begins with a calling. Leaders have always been called. Sacred scriptures throughout the world emphasize this. However, what is almost always missed is the development of the call story.
There are two levels of calling that need to be identified. The first is a general calling and a specific calling. Each of these plays a unique and significant role in the life of the leader.
The general call is usually the first initial calling that comes with leadership. As a coach, it’s common to see this within the coaching field. Fresh out of coaches training, I was under the belief that I could (and should) coach “anyone and everyone.”
It’s an easy thought to rationalize:
If the coaching principles are true, then I should be able to coach anyone!
And while the coaching principles are true and universal, I cannot nor should I, coach everyone. Coaches always seem to learn this the hard way, usually through a bad client. Thankfully, I had my bad client experience early on. While I knew that in theory, I could coach anyone, practically I knew I didn’t want to coach him again.
Specific calling happens when leaders remain faithful to pursuing and developing a robust answer to the question, “Why on earth am I on earth? What’s my ultimate purpose?
In my own coaching practice, I’ve worked with C-Suite executives, entrepreneurs, managers, religious professionals, educators, and people in the service industry. Each person allowed me to narrow down my specific niche. Now, I can clearly and confidently say that I provide executive coaching for small business owners.
Engaging in Your Calling
Most of us have experienced a general calling to leadership. That’s why we’re plugged into a network like LinkedIn. It’s the place for us to connect with other like-minded individuals.
I’m also willing to venture that many of us have found our specific calling. We know what we were put here to do.
The tension happens in two locations: for those that don’t know their specific calling and for those that do and aren’t doing it.
First, burnout can affect those that don’t know their specific calling. For years, I was stuck in this position. You, or someone you know, might be in this position if they say things like:
I don’t know where my life is going.
What’s my purpose?
I can’t seem to figure out what I’m trying to do.
I feel so lost.
These sorts of sayings are clues and indicators of an undefined and unrefined calling. For these leaders, burnout happens because the mounting frustration of an incomplete vision leaves them overwhelmed. Life for leaders was never meant to stop with a general calling.
All leaders all call for a specific reason, to a specific place, for specific people, to accomplish a significant mission.
The second place for burnout is for those that know their specific calling but aren’t practicing it. You might hear or feel sayings like this:
I feel like I’m made for more.
If I could just get the right opportunity…
I could accomplish so much if I could just get out of my own way.
For those with a specific, but yet unfulfilled calling, burnout can happen because of the increasing resentment of seemingly insurmountable barriers.
Leaders with an unfulfilled specific calling struggle with the fear of failure, inadequacy, or of missing out on achieving ultimate success.
Calling – Meeting The Needs of Others
Frederick Buechner once referred to calling as,
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
And notice, that so far, I have mentioned nothing about jobs, titles, or positions. Those are largely irrelevant when it comes to fulfilling a calling in leadership.
I worked with an individual once who, by all personality tests and interviews, would have been a great church planter. As we worked through his areas of calling and gifting, however, we discovered that he didn’t want to plant a church at all. Instead, he wanted to revitalize old churches and bring new life to established congregations.
Another former client worked his way up the corporate ladder, only to find himself lonely at the top. After reevaluating his career choices, he started down a completely different career field that gave him more flexibility in his home life. He was much happier wearing the pinstripes of a coach to his son’s baseball team than the pinstripes of his three-piece suit.
Calling – What it is … and what it isn’t
Calling is …
discovering, pursuing, and fulfilling the answer to the question, “What on earth am I on earth for?”
knowing intimately your deepest purpose and passion in the world.
a part of everyone’s story.
foundational to establish healthy leadership patterns while avoiding burnout.
Calling is not …
dependent on rank, title, position, promotion, or title.
arrogant, boastful, proud, or demeaning of others.
reserved for a select few “special ones.”
an optional endeavor who want to reach their full potential.
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.