7 Painful Truths About Burnout and Leadership

Ever wonder if you’re burning out as a leader?

Or maybe you think it’s just a season and you’ll push through it.

That approach worked for me.
Until it didn’t.

Ten years ago, I experienced burnout for the first time. It felt like I fell off a cliff and lost control of my heart, mind, energy, and strength.

If you’ve ever been there, you know what it’s like.
And if you haven’t, give thanks.

Most leaders experience some level of burnout at some point in their journey. Sometimes you lose passion and energy for the things you used to love. And other times, you just don’t want to get out of bed to do the kind of work that used to excite and inspire you.

Regardless of how much we hate the fact that we can burn out, here are 7 painful truths about leadership and burnout.

7 Painful Truths About Burnout and Leadership

1. Denial is an accelerator.

If you’re still reading this post, there’s still a chance you’re scoffing at it.

You’re saying things like:

I’m stronger than this.

Burnout is for wimps.

It won’t happen to me. I can control it.

I’m not burning out. I’m just tired. 

I get that. I used to be that way.

Just know you might be in denial. I was.

And denial is an accelerator.

Every day you remain in denial, you make burnout more likely, not less likely. Rather than care for yourself and deal with your issues, you push on, closer to the edge than ever.

Every day you remain in denial, you make burnout more likely, not less likely. Click To Tweet

2. It’s easier to find relief from the pace than from the weight.

Pace is an issue for most driven leaders.

But pace can be controlled, fairly easily. Take a day off. Shut off your phone. Cancel some meetings. Take a vacation. Put your feet up.

Boom, your pace is adjusted.

But managing the weight of leadership is a different thing.

Weight is what you feel as a leader. It’s the tremendous responsibility many leaders find impossible to lose, even when they’re not working.

Weight is about the stress over finances, growth, personnel issues, team dynamics, crises and much more. It sticks with you even when you’re off the clock or lying on a beach attempting to relax.

I know one leader who, while a great member of every team she served with, would sometimes criticize the senior leaders she worked for.

Then she and her husband planted their own church and became co-lead pastors. For the first time, she felt the weight of senior leadership. Quite literally, she wrote a letter of apology to every senior pastor she had previously worked for.

As she says now, she simply had no idea how heavy senior leadership can be.

Finding relief from the weight of leadership is much more difficult than finding a slower pace.

Probably the best tool I’ve found is what you might call re-direction.

If I am quiet, the weight of leadership hovers over me. It’s hard to shake. I take time to be still often.

But it’s also important to get busy doing other things. Have friends over. Go for a bike ride. Hike. Watch a great movie. Read a book. Travel. Find some new adventures. Occupy your mind in other ways. And of course, pray. These things lift the weight because quite literally, your mind is otherwise occupied.

Weight is harder to control than pace. But you must figure out how to do it.

It is easier to find relief from the pace of leadership than from the weight of leadership. Click To Tweet

3. You can’t outsmart a dead heart.

One casualty of leadership for many leaders is their heart.

It grows dull, even cold. You don’t feel what you used to feel—positively or negatively. It’s like your emotions are broken.

I noticed this happening off and on for about six years before I burned out.

I thought I could outsmart it.

You’re smart. You’re a leader. It’s easy to think a dead or cold heart won’t impact you.

And you couldn’t be more wrong.

If your heart isn’t working the way it should, you can ignore it forever. I outline 5 early warning signs of a hard heart here.

You can't outsmart a dead heart as a leader. Click To Tweet

4. Pride is more of a factor than you want to admit.

No one likes to admit they’re proud.

But pride was one of the things that pushed me into burnout.

I could do it.

I’d handle it all.

I was smarter.

I’m stronger.  

The truth is I wasn’t. And I couldn’t.

Humility will keep you in balance. Pride will push you into burnout faster.

5. Fear will keep you from getting help.

Pride pushes you to think you can handle anything.

Fear keeps you from telling anyone you can’t.

There’s still too much of a stigma attached to burnout, anxiety and even depression for many leaders to feel comfortable talking about it.

Get over it.

Once you crash, you will have no choice but to tell people.

If you start the dialogue early, you might be able to get help early and prevent a crash.

Prides pushes you to think you can handle anything. Fear keeps you from telling anyone you can't. Click To Tweet

6.  God is in the pain.

I hated my burnout. Hated it.

I was convinced God had left me. Or was torturing me. (If you’ve been in that space, you know what I’m talking about).

Instead, He was doing something in the middle of my burnout.

He was getting rid of parts of me. Parts of me that worked against me, against him, against others.

And it hurt. When God slices a part of you away, it hurts as much as if someone was removing your arm or a leg. Okay, maybe not quite that bad. But I’m telling you, it hurts.

He opened new parts of my soul I’d never seen. He was also forgiving me, and helping me to forgive myself. I learned to relate to and empathize with people better.

He was making me a better father, better husband, better leader and friend.

But it was painful.

You’ll be tempted to think God has left you in the dark night of your soul (as John of the Cross so poignantly framed it.) But he hasn’t.

Like a surgeon, He’s operating. And when you surrender it to him, it works for your good and to His glory.

This season in your life doesn’t have to end in defeat. And when you surrender it to Christ, it doesn’t, no matter how you feel.

7.  You can get back to normal. But it will be a new normal.

I was able to stay in my job and got back to health while leading, but I realize that’s not always the case for leaders.

Within three months of my crash, I was operating at 40-50% of my usual energy. Within six months, I was back to maybe 70% of my strength. And, within a year, 80%.

But it took another four years to gradually recover that remaining 20%. Don’t get me wrong, I was putting in full days, and very few people saw that 20% was missing. It was more of a heart thing for me than anything.

In the end, it took me five (yes, five) long years to get back to full strength. Maybe you can do it faster. I hope so.

But here’s what surprised me: When I finally reached 100%, it was a new normal. Very few leaders who emerge out of burnout are the same as they were before.

Like Jacob who wrestled the angel, you walk with a limp. But you walk stronger.

Paradoxically, I’m more aware of my limits than I’ve ever been (my need for rest, time alone, the limits of my gifting and strength), and yet I’ve never ‘produced’ more in terms of deepening relationships and sheer productivity and output in work. I don’t fully understand that.

Your story will be unique to you, of course.

But the point is, don’t look to get back what you lost. Look to move forward to a new normal.

You never really go back to normal after burnout. You find a new normal. And often it's better. Click To Tweet

What Are You Learning?

What are you learning about burnout, anxiety and stress in leadership?

Leave a comment!


  1. Chad Conant on December 12, 2021 at 9:43 am

    You make a great point Carey about the weight of senior leadership being harder to shake than even the pace. One thing that I would recommend regarding the weight of it all is to find a spiritual director, someone whom you can confide in about your role and the weight and stress of it all. Spiritual Direction can be a great way to stay connected to God and to what is going on in your heart as you lead others. It can be a safe place to unload your burdens and to set the weight of it all down before God and with another person. I highly recommend it!

  2. Deanne on May 14, 2019 at 4:41 pm

    I burnt out 4 yrs ago. I had no idea what it was. I was in a sr management role and noticed that the higher you rose, the more you were expected not to need any support. And although I hate playing the gender card, my equals were in the golf course, networking and building their careers in the evenings and weekends and I was taking kids to dance, helping them with homework and helping my mom who has ms… I could do it all. I thought. I thought that giving up on my needs was what I was supposed to do. I visualized myself as a thoroughbred… (they’ll run till they drop). Drop I did.
    I took a stress leave when my brain stopped remembering how to get home from work… when my legs were going numb. When I slept in my car or on a bench while the kids did their activities.
    Unfortunately I got no support at work, as much as HR emailing to ask if I was enjoying my ‘time off’. I wasn’t. It was hell. When the insurance company forced me back to work against medical advice, I was laid off 6 weeks later.
    The toughest part was keeping confidence while being unemployed. No one will hire me because Im too overqualified…
    Its year 4 and Im getting there, but still wondering when I’ll be fully functional again.
    Thank you for your article… its made me feel like theres still hope and I may one day get to the new ‘normal’.
    One foot in front of the other….

  3. […] 7 Painful Truths About Burnout and Leadership […]

  4. Jeff Orr on March 9, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    Great post! I was looking for stats on leadership and burnout and found your 7 truths very enlightening. I especially related to #6, although it was quite a few years ago when I was in the middle of it. I appreciate your insights.
    The ‘New Normal’ caught my attention (it’s the title of my book), but more, you are very correct that when we go through these dark times as a leader, we will not come out the other side the same. A tough truth, but we must come to grips with it or we will be “stuck” in our old normal wondering why we can’t move forward. Thank you for the post!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 10, 2015 at 5:55 am

      Jeff…thanks for this. I’m glad you connected and I hope your comment (and book) encourages people. Glad you’re doing better. It’s a long journey, isn’t it?

      • Lindi on February 6, 2021 at 6:08 pm

        Thank you for the article.
        I have been there and feel like I am currently there.
        In the last 6.months, my husband has had major back surgery. Developed a staph infection, hr had a secondary surgery to remove it. He was innthe hospital for 2 months. In Oct, he was able to get out, but needed antibiotic infusion 3 times a day through the month of October. Then November, my uncle came down with Covid-19. He wound up in the hospital, nearly died. My Dad contracted Covid-19 from my uncle was hospitalized as well. Thanksgiving he fell and developed Fournier’s gangrene. Eleven debridement surgeries later and multiple family maatings to discuss whether he would survive or not. Jan. 19th he was put on hospice. He died Jan. 25th. I worked all through this. The week of hospice. I worked the church services only. Other than that, I was at work nearly everyday. I am still dealing with my Dad’s pasting. When all of this started we were in transition for our new pastor to start in September. I am trying to “skill up” but having a hard time.
        I dont think this is pride. Maybe it is. My uncle has no kids, he stayed with us for a few weeks after he was able to leave rehabilitation facility after Covid-19. Family is a core value for me. I dont believe helping my family in this situation is rescuing in anyway. They absolutely could not do for themselves. I call this being a good daughter and neice.
        Questions: Can a situation cause you to feel burn out? Or is my handling of this situation making me feel that way?

  5. Carey Nieuwhof on January 12, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    Thanks Brett. 🙂

  6. Brad hov on January 12, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    just found your blog when looking up some leadership issues. glad i did as made my way to this post. I’m on staff of a suburban church/school and struggling/suffering from burnout and have been for last several years. I’ve felt more alone in this period than any in my life and sadly, it is as though the ministry almost encourages me to keep pushing on no matter what, all in the name of ministry. I felt more supported when i worked in private industry. this post hit at the right time. look forward to reading your posts on this and listening to the Perry Noble podcast.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 12, 2015 at 4:04 pm

      So glad to hear this Brad. Hope you are feeling better.

  7. […] “Ever wonder if you’re burning out as a leader? Or maybe you think it’s just a season and you’ll push through it.” Cary Nieuwhof on the painful truths of leadership. […]

  8. Brent Dumler on October 1, 2014 at 11:37 am

    ‘Relief from the pace’ is a big one personally. I wrote down something Perry said, “The Bible calls those who will not work lazy, BUT it also says that those who refuse to rest are disobedient.” I will preach this to my staff and church until the day I die. God’s not impressed with our busy-ness. Taking a personal day of ‘real’ rest every week, to adjust my pace, has saved my family and call to ministry. Powerful interview, Carey…and thankful for Perry’s authenticity.

  9. 5 for Leadership (9/27/14) - Gary Runn on September 27, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    […] 7 Painful Truths About Burnout and Leadership  “Ever wonder if you’re burning out as a leader? Or maybe you think it’s just a season and you’ll push through it. That worked for me…until it didn’t work any more. 8 years ago I experienced burnout for the first time. It was like I fell off a cliff and lost control of my heart, mind, energy and strength.” Carey Nieuwhof writes a very revealing and honest post about this important topic. He has also updated his web site recently–take some time to look around. […]

  10. prophetsandpopstars on September 24, 2014 at 10:18 am

    Without turning this into a 7 point affirmation, I’ll add that, while I wrestle with burnout the way Liam Neeson wrestle with wolves in The Grey, There is one thing that I keep working to prayerfully move toward:

    To protect my energy, more than my time.

    Becoming aware that it’s my energy that gets depleated by the way that I use my time (or allow it to use me), I am shifting from a “how much time do I have for meetings and conversations, etc., today?” to “how much energy do I have?” And then the follow through question, “If I’m honest, how much will it take to prepare, recover and process that conversation.”

    What we do in our time before and after the event, sometimes feels more important than the meeting (or whatever) itself.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 26, 2014 at 5:46 am

      Thanks so much for this. Energy is an incredible barometer of how healthy you are. So true!

  11. […] 7 Painful Truths About Leadership and Burnout […]

  12. […] By Carey […]

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