Burnout is what happens when we ignore the soul whispering against an unhealthy job or relationship.
• Dr. Dina Glouberman
I was completely depleted.
We’d just come out of a meeting where we’d finally aligned on a forward action. Our team had agreed on this action six months earlier. It was the ethical thing to do, the result I’d been working towards tirelessly. I had what I wanted, but at what cost? It had been such a struggle to get there.
Leaving that call, I felt more hopeless and helpless than I have ever felt in my whole life.
I felt the role in the organization whose purpose and vision I had believed in was steadily eroding. I was required to be a tool of a controlling authority, asked to simply do as I was told even if it was against the organization’s purpose and mission. It felt like I was talking into the wind, pushing a large rock uphill, while lost in a desert. It was a lonely place to be.
Did I mention that I was exhausted?
This came as a shock. It crept up on me slowly, stealthily. I am known for my unending enthusiasm and energy, so it was frightening to feel so empty.
Burnout happens, not because we’re trying to solve problems but because we’ve been trying to solve the same problem over and over and over.
• Susan Scott
I may have felt lonely and burned out, yet I was not alone. If only!
I am surrounded by similar stories of leaders working in a range of organizations and environments. It feels like walking through a wasteland, the ashes of a once glorious forest.
“I feel so alone in leading these changes. Where is everyone? Where is the executive support?”
“It’s like whatever I say – they don’t hear me, don’t believe me or trust me. They need to hear it from above. I’m tired of going around in circles. It’s time to exit.”
“If this is really seen as important and I am doing things right, why is everything so hard?”
“I no longer believe in a culture that does not value its people. I am unable to change it. I’m leaving to create an environment where people can thrive.”
You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.
I look at the ashen faces, the embers of some of the brightest, most brilliant and purposeful leaders I have known, and fear for them in a world that wants to stay safe instead of purposeful.
These are the leapers in change, those brave souls that lean forward into leading transformation.
Often, they are the most energetic, hopeful, and optimistic of us all. The most courageous, willing to move forward with uncertainty. The most resilient and agile, who have been able to bounce back, being quick and nimble on their feet.
I fear many organizations are losing these bright stars, especially in those where there are too few at the upper echelons willing to hold themselves responsible and accountable to do what is required to sustain a sense of urgency towards a change vision.
Instead, they choose to sit in the relative safety of complacency, allowing the fire to fizzle out. They hold on to the power of their thrones, rather than risk the personal discomfort of the vulnerability of emotional exposure in uncertainty.
When complacency suppresses true urgency towards a shared purpose, it can burn out leaders. The condition is real, having been identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an occupational phenomenon.
Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
3) reduced professional efficacy.
• World Health Organization (ICD-11)
How can we avoid burnout in our teams and organizations? The responsibility lies with leaders at the top of the organizational ladder, and throughout the organization. Organizational leaders must look at themselves and their teams to see where they are contributing to burnout.
The solution involves primary principles of change leadership.
Inspire true urgency – Stop being complacent.
Influence heads, hearts and guts – Continue to hold to the deeper purpose – the why – of the organizational transformation.
Emerge collective leadership – Start to commit fully to the reflective work of developing teams.
Finally, organizational leaders can step into eldership, holding themselves responsible and accountable to providing the support and resources necessary to allow their change leaders to shine.
The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.
Returning from burnout requires an acknowledgement that leading change in a VUCA world is challenging.
In risking, we may fail. However, there is a difference in how we fail. Are we failing intelligently because we experimented with trying something new and complex?
Or have we failed because we didn’t want to risk being disliked, distrusted, or disbelieved? Those are preventable failures which, if worked on together as a leadership team, can be overcome.
By refreshing our sense of belonging in the world, we widen the web of relationships that nourishes us and protect us from burnouts.
• Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone
I have hope for those leapers in change who have burned out – if they find ways to care, dare and bare.
If they are able to turn their care to other areas of their lives for a little and bring more balance, they may be surprised to find they are no longer alone and have done enough to ignite allies – the bridge builders – who will begin to emerge and pick up the care.
If they dare to share their voices more quietly in some areas, still speaking up by sharing their vision and influencing rather than trying to persuade, they may find that others miss their voices and seek them out.
If they can bare their need for support, and hold those above them accountable for their role, they may be surprised by the affirmation they receive.
Care, dare and bare.
That’s what I did, and although my fire is not burning tall it is more steady now.
Kerry Woodcock, Ph.D., leads change for a world of change, coaching pioneers and influencers to amplify the power of relationship and lead over the edge of change. As principal of Novalda, Kerry develops change leadership capability in organizations and social systems.