7 Painful Truths About Burnout and Leadership

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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

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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

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.