Exhaustion is the Gateway Drug To _________. (Moral Failure + 6 Other Unintended Consequences)

As a leader, it’s been almost two years since you’ve been able to either catch your breath or lead through anything resembling normal.

Leader after leader has told me they’ve never worked harder in their life.

What makes working hard more frustrating than ever is that in normal times, hard work brings reward. Over the last two years, though, for most leaders, hard work has brought stagnation or decline.

It’s easy to think that the solution to getting to the other side is to work harder to find a breakthrough. Maybe that will work, but after two years, do you really think so?

All of this has left you exhausted. And it’s increasingly evident that perpetual exhaustion can lead you into some very nasty places, places you never intended to go.

Exhaustion functions like a gateway drug to a whole host of unintended consequences in your life including, but not limited to, moral failure.

Do you have to be exhausted to lead well?

Actually, just the opposite.

To that end, a quick lesson from elite athletes. Then, seven examples of the bad thing perpetual exhaustion can lead you into.

A Quick Lesson from Elite Athletes: An Unsustainable Pace Doesn’t Win Medals

My son forwarded me a TED Talk in which Dr. Stephen Seiler shares his discovery that contrary to popular opinion, many Olympic and other world champion athletes don’t usually train at high-intensity levels. In fact, the majority of their training is done at low intensity. His study covered many sports and both male and female athletes.

Dr. Seiler breaks down exercise levels into what he calls Green, Yellow, and Red Zones…Green being low-intensity training (during which you can chat with your training partner along the way), yellow being mid-intensity (short conversation, breathing is elevated) and Red being high-intensity (breathless, can’t speak).

Surprisingly, world champion athletes do 80% of their training in the low-intensity Green Zone. In other words, they barely break a sweat.  This means when they need to surge and soar to win a medal, they can. And the low-intensity training gave their body the base training it needs to excel.

Leaders, take note.

Dr. Seiler’s findings line up with what I share in my new book, At Your Best, where I break down a leader’s workday into (are you ready?), Green, Yellow, and Red Zones, and show you how to use your Green Zone to achieve margin in your life, no matter how crazy leadership gets.

You may have also noticed this…you’re at your best as a leader and at your best as a human when you have the most margin.

Most leaders have no margin right now. It’s like their entire life is a Red Zone. And that’s not sustainable.

At Your Best is designed to help you reclaim margin in your life and get time, energy, and priorities working for you, not against you.

If you have no plan to change your pace heading into yet another year of leadership turbulence, there’s a lot at stake.

Here are seven things you’re sacrificing or risking if you continue to lead at an unsustainable pace.

1. Your Family

Guess who got the leftovers of you since the pandemic started? There’s about a 99.9% chance it was your family.

A mid-2021 Delloite study revealed that 82% of executive leaders finish work every day feeling mentally and/or physically exhausted.

Guess what that leaves for your family?

Exactly. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

I lived there for too long as a young leader, and I promise you it doesn’t need to be that way.

Your family may not walk out on you, and you might be able to ask them for ‘one more year’ or ‘one more’ season.

But sacrificing your family on the altar of leadership isn’t leadership.

Eventually, you’ll retire from work or ministry, but you’ll never retire from your family.

Everyone is willing to sacrifice for a season, but two years lived at an unsustainable pace is not a season.

Few leaders are winning at work these days they want to be, but even if you’re exhausting hours are moving the needle at work, if you’re winning at work and losing at home, you’re losing. Period.

2. Burn Out

Although a record number of people seem to be burning out these days (here’s how to tell), maybe you haven’t, which is awesome.

The hardest part of burnout is that you don’t get to choose when you burn out—it just happens.

I learned that the hard way a decade into leadership when ten years of driving hard put my mind and body over the line.

Here’s the truth about burnout: if you don’t declare a finish line, your body will.

If you still have control over your mind and body, it’s best to take action now. Burnout is something you fall into, and once you fall into it, you lose control over when you get out.

3. Moral Failure

So yes, moral failure is another unintended consequence of living in a state of exhaustion. It’s not inevitable, but it is increasingly likely the longer you lead on empty.

I’m more convinced than ever that many (not all, but many)  leaders who fall into some kind of moral failure (affairs, abuse, fraud) never intended to do so.

As Stephen Mansfield argues, when leaders get exhausted, isolated, or even stay too long, moral failure often follows.

When you’re exhausted, bad things seem good and good things seem bad. That’s a perfect setup for moral failure.

A lot of people think moral failure in pastors is an example of people who got into leadership with fatally flawed character.

In some cases, that’s true.

In other cases, that’s not. It’s not that most pastors are fake. It’s just that the struggle is real.

And when you’re exhausted, you’re far more likely to lose the battle.

Saying it will never happen to you but letting yourself get run down is a great way to increase your chances of it happening to you.

Just know this: exhaustion is the gateway drug to moral failure.

If that’s not something you want to go through, then start living at a pace that’s less exhausting.

4. Terrible Decision Making

So let’s say you don’t slip into moral failure (many leaders won’t), that doesn’t mean your chronic weariness isn’t taking a toll.

An exhausted decision-maker is a terrible decision-maker. This is true personally and organizationally.

On everything from diet to self-care to staff decisions and vision casting, it’s exceedingly difficult to make good decisions when you’re tired.

5. A Defeated Team

Your family may be paying a price for your weariness, but so are your team and the people you lead.

When you show up listless or not at your best day after day, it trickles down.

Your exhaustion eventually becomes a malaise everyone else feels.

A defeated leader creates a defeated team.

6. More of the Same

Part of the reason this is a long list is because so many leaders I know will press on regardless of the consequences.

One more consequence is that the longer you lead at an unsustainable pace, the less likely you are to find the breakthrough you want.

Think about it. You’ve been running really hard, but your fatigue hasn’t produced the momentum you’re looking for. That, in turn, implies that further fatigued leadership on your part will create more of the same for your organization.

As brain research is increasingly showing, when you’re rested, you’re more creative.

What if your breakthrough won’t come from doing more, but paradoxically, from the season where you intentionally decide to do less?

7. Ineffectiveness

As more than one leader has said, the best thing you can bring to your job as a leader is your energy.

You can sprint for a month or for a season, but you can’t sprint for years.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what will happen to your leadership when you have no energy left, or when you can only bring your diminished energy.

Eventually, your chronic fatigue makes you ineffective. Unable to rally yourself or the team, you’ll languish in your leadership.

Ironically, in your desire to do more, you’ll end up accomplishing less.

Time Off Won’t Heal You, But This Can 

A lot of leaders have held out over the last two years hoping that their next vacation/week away/break will be what they need to feel good again and they’ve been singularly disappointed when their time off has failed to deliver.

Even after a week or two at the beach, most leaders see all their rest erased by 11 a.m. on their first day back.


Here’s the challenge: the problem with most leaders is not how we spend our time off. It’s how we spend our time on.

Time off can’t heal you if the problem is how you spend your time on.

Having burned out a decade into my leadership, I made a decision moving forward to start living in a way each day that would help me thrive tomorrow.

Finding a sustainable pace not only made me a better human, it made me a better leader. The result? Not only did I start feeling better, but what I led grew to over 10x the size of what I was leading pre-burnout.

My new book, At Your Best, is designed to help you find a sustainable pace and accomplish far more in less time.

You can get your copy here and get instant access to a companion video Masterclass here.

What’s Exhaustion Costing You?

What about you? How do you see an unsustainable pace impacting your leadership and those around you?

Exhaustion is the Gateway Drug To _________. (Moral Failure + 6 Other Unintended Consequences)


  1. Rose on November 3, 2021 at 1:40 pm

    Thank you! I work in leadership development for a health care organization and my husband is a pastor. I see these risk factors of burnout daily and I have personally been ensnared in the “I’m fine” trap way to many times. I appreciate the pragmatic approach to lessening and mitigating burnout. We all know the importance of prayer, meditation on scripture and support from our Christian communities AND many of us have poor habits that coincide with our spiritual disciplines. I plan to check out your book and will share these insights with others. Great work on a timely topic!

  2. Tim Rippstein on November 1, 2021 at 10:11 am

    A bit disappointing. Nothing about rest in the Lord, the kind of renewal He wants to provide.

  3. Steve Carlisle on November 1, 2021 at 10:06 am

    This blog is getting as bad as the nightly news! Not one word about pastors doing things right, or ones that are excelling. Why?

  4. david.drake on November 1, 2021 at 9:48 am

    I read your book and am now going through your Masterclass. I so needed this as I was experiencing at least half of the symptoms of burnout. Carey, I would like to have an email exchange or zoom meeting with you to discuss integration of some of the principles of GTD (I watched your interview with David Allen) with your book At Your Best. Here is my email address: david-drake@uiowa.edu. I am a professor of microbiology & infectious diseases and lead a research group and have been active working through the pandemic as part of a national infectious diseases network


  5. Dillon Smith on November 1, 2021 at 8:22 am

    Gold! Excellent post.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 1, 2021 at 9:12 am

      Thanks Dillon!

      • Fr. Martin Vu on November 1, 2021 at 10:06 am

        I’ve been listening to your book on Audible and I love it!

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