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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.

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

But most leaders get to some level of burnout at some point in their journey. Sometimes you lose passion and energy for the things you used to love. And sometimes, you just don’t want to get out of bed or realize you can no longer do what you used to love to do.

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

How Burnout Got Perry Noble and How it Got Me.

Before I jump to the 7 truths about leadership and burnout, let’s open the dialogue a bit more.

On my Leadership Podcast,  I spoke with Perry Noble about the burnout, depression and anxiety he has gone through as leader of one of American’s fastest growing and largest churches. You can listen below, or if you’d like, you can listen on your phone or other device here. (Just search for Episode 2, and subscribe while you’re at it. It’s free.)

I hope Perry’s exceptionally candid, honest conversation helps you. It is rare to have a leader speak this honestly and this openly about his struggles, including the suicidal thoughts he experienced and his views on taking medication for depression.

I tell my story of burnout in this post, and also share 9 signs you’re burning out.

Additionally, in this post, I talk about how I recovered and outline 12 keys to getting back.

The bottom line?

Burnout is tough…and it impacts more leaders than you think.

I really hope the dialogue around this podcast episode and the posts mentioned helps many leaders.

 

7 Painful Truths About Burnout and Leadership

Here are 7 painful but unavoidable 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 because rather than care for yourself and deal with your issues, you push on, closer to the edge than ever.

 

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. Weight is 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…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.

 

3. You can’t outsmart a dead heart.

One casualty of leadership for many leaders is their heart.

It grows dull…even dead. 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 6 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 flat 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.

 

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 could handle it all.

I was smarter.

I was 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.

 

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 badly. But I’m telling you, it hurts.

He was opening up new parts of my soul I had never seen. He was also forgiving me, and helping me to forgive myself. He was helping me relate to 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.

Like Perry, 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 3 months of my crash, I was operating at 40-50% of my usual energy. Within 6 months, I was back to maybe 70% of my strength. Within a year 80%.

But it took another 4 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 5 (yes…5) 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 am 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 have 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.

 

What Are You Learning?

I’m excited to have been able to talk to Perry about his burnout. I really hope it helps.

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

Leave a comment!

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12 Comments

  1. 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?

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

    Thanks Brett. 🙂

  3. 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.

  4. […] “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. […]

  5. 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.

  6. 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. […]

  7. 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!

  8. […] 7 Painful Truths About Leadership and Burnout […]

  9. […] By Carey […]

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