Leadership Caffeine™—What to Do When You Grow Fatigued

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

Much of our common dialog around leadership focuses on the lofty and noble. That’s good and appropriate. After all there are some remarkable opportunities for growth and reward in the life of a conscientious leader. Empowering people who respond in great form to drive remarkable outcomes is indeed exhilarating. Taking a short leap of faith on an unproven player in a new role and watching (and helping) it work is what it’s all about. Looking back at the careers and achievements of people who intersected with you during your journey for a moment in time is truly amazing and humbling.

Why then is it so damned exhausting to serve as a leader? And better yet, how does someone entering the power dive of leadership fatigue find a way to pull out and continue serving enthusiastically in pursuit of the noble?

Vexing (and very real) challenges and questions for anyone who has served in a role responsible for others.

An Inelegant Escape (With a Great Outcome):

I hit the wall hard earlier in my career and made what was likely my biggest career blunder in my drive to escape the tyranny of the team. After being in a supervisory or managerial role for all but 6 months of my first 14 years out of college, I had had it with the drama, soap operas, head cases and garden variety of issues that all people and all teams bring to the occasion. All my teams had been successful…our businesses grew nicely and the talent was everywhere. And I was out of gas spinning the plates and keeping the wings from breaking off during our tumultuous flights for success.

In my attempt at achieving escape velocity from the life of a leader, I took an individual contributor’s role as a senior staff member working for a brilliant (but very) mid-twentieth century style command and control leader. It didn’t take long to recognize that something was wrong. While the people around me were brilliant and the many divisions and firms under this corporate umbrella fascinating, there was no team for me to develop and I wasn’t building with anyone. I discovered that if I wasn’t building people, teams and businesses, I felt like I was dying. Fortunately, this role led to an unexpected door into a new role and new firm leading others and growing a business that by all standards was the most rewarding portion of my corporate career. Happy ending. Good fortune. The next time around, the experience with all of its headaches was so rewarding from a people perspective, I dedicated my first book to a good number of those “family” members.

You’re Not Alone:

I’ve discovered that I’m not alone in having hit the wall of leadership fatigue. Many former colleagues and coaching clients have experienced their own form of this syndrome. Many suffer in silence, counting the days and marking time. Others have pursued radical career changes and entrepreneurial adventures and a good number have managed to find ways to revitalize and reset around this wonderful, vexing, draining, exhilarating role of leading.

Here are a few thoughts drawn from the wisdom and examples of others striving to recover from a bad case of leadership fatigue. Feel free to add your guidance here for all of us striving to keep the energy high.

Ten Ideas to Help You Fight Leadership Fatigue:

1. Create an Artifact to Remind Yourself Daily of Your Real Purpose. The daily challenges in our organizations can be all consuming. Chasing the urgent consumes much of our time and the urgent-unimportant has a way of filling any openings. An exercise I’ve used for years now to help leaders remind themselves is to develop and make visible their own personal leader’s charter. I have my own…and those who have followed this tactic have developed their version of why they are serving in this role and what they are accountable for in leading others. A simple morning re-read of this framed charter hanging on the wall or sitting on a shelf provides a powerful reminder of your real role and the opportunity you have to build others and your business with every single encounter in the upcoming day.

2. Cultivate a Beginner’s Mind. This one is difficult for the young and brash. It takes a few laps around the blocks of professional life to recognize that you don’t have the answer to every problem. Approaching issues by suspending judgment and seeking first to understand is a remarkable way to change the tone and tenor of every day. Beginners learn to ask questions and viewing people and teams and challenges from a fresh perspective can lead to an inner calm and a perpetual journey of discovery. The wisest leaders I’ve worked around understand that with every person and every day they are beginners.

3. Keep it in Context. Remember, you have the privilege of helping people and helping your firm every single day. Each day is a blank canvas that you get to fill-in with positive encounters, helpful ideas and productive interactions. Problems and issues represent opportunities to serve and to teach. Recognizing and reminding yourself of this privilege of serving helps to tame the stress.

4. Don’t Cede Control to the Gremlins. Faced with circumstances that are personally toxic…a hostile environment; a micromanaging maniacal senior executive breathing down your neck or an endless barrage of Everest-like problems, it’s easy to fall into the professional death spiral. Unless lives (yours and others) are on the line, beware this trap of equating your self-worth and your life’s value with your miserable work experience. While I don’t advocate a casual attitude about your work, remember that you have to give permission to that miserable manager or the stressful circumstances to take control of your perception of self. Strive to not cede that control by looking at the reality of the less than life or death issues swirling around you. (In some cases, external help/counseling/coaching is a great idea if you’re in this mode.)

5. Engage In the Moment—One Encounter at a Time. Instead of focusing on the noise and heat that you expect to encounter every day, reign in your focal point to the person, group or issue immediately in front of you. Much of our angst is over the expectation of what will happen. The act of focusing on what’s happening in the moment versus boiling the ocean of uncertainty over what may happen or what’s happening in the background is liberating. You get to create the future one controllable moment at a time.

6. Get a Coach. I love great executive and professional coaches for all of the wonderful wisdom they bring to our issues and for the metaphorical clubbing upside the head they provide to help us see ourselves and our situations with a level of clarity that we are unable to gain on our own. Great coaches peel back the layers of complexity and help us identify our core issues and then they kick our asses in pursuit of resolving or strengthening around those issues. If you’ve ever had a great strength training or conditioning coach, the professional coach has the same priceless impact. They see you through eyes other than your own and they push us harder than we would ever push ourselves.

7. Master Another Discipline. It’s amazing how pursuing something new…a new language, a craft or a hobby that takes you completely out of your daily life can help you cope with those vexing daily circumstances. While you hate to say that the workday becomes less important, the pursuit of a new passion is energizing and it creates a halo effect around your work days. You’re aware that you are tackling something bigger and different than your daily work and strangely/interestingly, it makes your work all the more bearable.

8. A Healthy Body Breeds a Healthy Mind. Working on your diet or fitness offers nearly instantaneous feedback and it’s amazing what a host of small victories (more time, faster time, more strength, the first few pounds, the next weight target, the better fitting clothes) will do for your daily attitude. In my case, it has been transformational for both mind and body.

9. Manufacture “You” Time. Finding time to think deeply about what you are doing and what you need to do is priceless. Our always-on world and our omnipresent devices don’t make this easy. Something as simple as 15 minutes of reading (in your profession, in your faith, pure escapism… whatever) gives your brain both a much needed stress rest and a jolt of energy and creativity.

10. Don’t Be Afraid to Push the Eject Button. While it may sound like I’m suggesting you give up, there are absolutely circumstances where enough is enough. I tripped and stumbled a bit with my own eject activity, however, I would do the same thing all over again. The transition helped me refuel and regain much needed context. Importantly, it set the stage for some of my life’s best work. Sometimes a new adventure is just what the spirit needs to revitalize.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’ve encountered too many people suffering in silence in their roles responsible for others. Nothing good comes of this martyrdom…for you for or for those around you. Pick a strategy to recharge…try a variety of approaches until something works or, cultivate the courage to go do something else. The only mistake is to stay locked in irons, making yourself and everyone around you miserable. Leading others is too important to be left to someone out of gas and out of heart. Given our challenges in this world, we need all the leadership energy and heart we can muster.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Comments

  1. Art – a really important topic. As you know, leadership is a non-stop 24x7x365 job. You never leave it in the office and it never leave your mind. But, as you point out, the rewards are amazing. I wish I’d had your ten tips back “in the day”. (Oh, BTW, you pick your strategy and you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your friends strategy……too soon?)

    • Eric, you are right. As you have often described to me, it constantly rents space in your mind. Thus the need to disconnect on occasion, otherwise, we’re inviting fatigue to the party. -Art

  2. Mary Jo Asmus says:

    Art, would it sound harsh if I said that leaders who burn themselves out have nobody to blame but themselves? I do think its a key point (that you’ve made here) on the importance of taking responsibility for ourselves and what we can do, not relying on fate or luck, or others. Great article.

    • Mary Jo, there is indeed a personal accountability topic. Sometimes the gravitational pull of the role…the human fear of failure etc. drive people to lose track of the reality that they control the situation. The cede control to the gremlins! (And yes, you are one of those great coaches I am referencing in the article. I appreciate you!) -Art

  3. Bill sommers says:

    The battles and the wars. The conclusion that these are the rust on [what I thought] was an iron clad plan began to sink the ship until the following changes were made: Never take work home unless it is practical and a necessity. Only the outlines are discussed with the spouse on your plans and why. Take the time to do events that the children want individually to do with you and help them plan the more intricate part of the plan a minimum of once a year. In this manner there is forward thinking with your family and that is the most important part of your life and family.

    • Bill, yours is a creative and appropriate look at keeping it in context. Several readers have highlighted the family issue as well as how they draw strength from their own faith as critical tools in coping and overcoming leadership fatigue. Appreciate your thoughts. -Art

  4. God dropped your words in my inbox this holiday weekend. Exactly what I needed! Thank you, Art!

  5. I happened upon this article from The IFA (International Franchise Association) newsbrief. What a great piece. So often I wonder how entrepreneurs deal with many of these issues, summed up by leadership fatigue. Entrepreneurship in many instances can be lonely and isolating and if you have entrepreneurial heroes as do I (Howard Schultz, Steve Jobs, Sam Walton) you are always left pondering about their struggles, how they overcame leadership fatigue and pushed forward when literally running on fumes.

    For many entrepreneurs, myself included, #10 is not an option when you are fully invested financially and otherwise in your entrepreneurial venture. There is no eject button.

    Thanks again for this thoughtful article. Every entrepreneur should read it.

    • Vas, glad you found the article and thanks for reaching back. I’m guilty of focusing on the corporate participants here and right you are for entrepreneurs. Thanks for the very appropriate clarification! -Art

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