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Why Leadership Is So Exhausting—And What to Do About It

exhaustingYou’re probably feeling a little tired.

And if that’s the case, you’re not alone. Exhaustion, anxiety and stress seem to be a growing problem in leadership.

Recently, a planned sabbatical made headlines when mega-church pastor Howard-John Wesley stood before 4500 worshippers in early December and told them he was tired and taking a Sabbatical.

“I am tired in my soul,” Wesley said, among many other things he shared.

There was no scandal, no moral failure…just fatigue—a soul-weariness that most of us who have led for more than a few minutes know all too well. (The full message is a great listen for any leader struggling with fatigue…and the message is better than the articles that summarize it. Howard-John is nuanced, thoughtful and very real. Listen here.)

What encouraged me so much about Wesley was his decision to take a break before something bad happened—or at least something worse than the fatigue and frustration he confessed to. As he said in the message, he’s not burned out. He’s coming back. But he’s tired.

When you peek behind the headlines of mega-church pastor failures, business leaders who get fired, the resignations of politicians and even implosion of athletes, one common theme is that many of them were tired…dead tired. (I offer some thoughts on why mega-church pastors keep failing in this post.)

Run on empty for long, and it’s almost inevitable that you end up doing something you (and many others) will regret for a long time.

So—now the big question— why is leadership so exhausting?

Here are 5 reasons I’ve seen in my own leadership and life.

1. Your Ratio of Output to Input is Skewed

One of the chief roles of leadership is to produce. Think about it.

As a leader, you’re responsible for:

results

content

the team

wins

changed lives

progress

widgets

financials

And that’s just a partial list.

All of which means your job as a leader is to create outputs.

But like a bank account, outputs have to be at least matched, if not exceeded, by inputs. Otherwise, you go bankrupt.

If you were to look at your life right now, what’s your ratio of output to input? My guess for most leaders is it’s running 5:1. Or maybe 10:1.

That’s a problem.

Inputs for leaders include rest, learning, growth, life-giving relationships, spiritual development, healthy eating, exercise, training, outside ideas, hobbies and…(remember this?)…fun.

If your output consistently exceeds your input as a leader, you’re on the road to bankruptcy.

If your output consistently exceeds your input as a leader, you're on the road to bankruptcy. Click To Tweet

2. You’re Never Really Off

Technology has changed so much in the last decade.

Because of the pressures of leadership, leaders have always had a hard time being ‘off.’ There’s always more to be done.

But smartphones and the proliferation of inboxes on every single social platform, and ‘advances’ like Slack, email, text messaging and plain old voicemail means a leader is never really off.

You used to go to work, now, thanks to technology, work goes to you…and never leaves you.

It might be easy to think you’re just taking 5 minutes out of your family’s Disney+ movie night, but every interaction takes its toll.

I have friends in medicine who are on call all the time. They tell me they never sleep the same knowing they could be called. Even if they happen to make it through the night without a call, they still don’t wake up as rested.

These days, that’s pretty much all of us.

You used to go to work, now, thanks to technology, work goes to you...and never leaves you. Click To Tweet

3. And You’re Never Really On

In the same way work follows you everywhere you go via your pocket or purse, your life now follows you to work.

Not only are you tired from not enough sleep, and stressed from working a bit the night before, but now your whole life is accessible at work. You can book dinner reservations, text your family, check your personal social media accounts and so much more.

As a result, it’s harder to focus at work and stay productive.

You’re never really on, and you’re never really off. You just live in a perpetual grey zone.

Because of technology, you're never really on, and you're never really off. You just live in a perpetual grey zone. Click To Tweet

4. There’s No Finish Line

Even if you’re never really on and never really off, there’s an even bigger question: when are you done leading?

Correct. Never.

The blessing and curse of leadership is that there’s always more: more people to serve, people to reach or clients to acquire.

And then there’s better.

One of the things that drives most leaders is the desire to improve. Which is awesome, and often very needed.

But eventually, excellent brings diminishing returns. If your work amounts to, say, an 8.5 out of 10, for example, making it a 9.5 might take you hours, or days, or even thousands (or hundreds of thousands of dollars). And for what?

When something that might require double the effort or dollars only produces 10% more, you have to question the return on investment. Especially when, in all likelihood, 10% more effort in another area might produce 30% greater results.

Unaware of the diminishing returns, most leaders keep pushing for no real reason.

And here’s the sobering reality: if you don’t declare a finish line, your body will.

If you don't declare a finish line, your body will. Click To Tweet

5. Rest Looks Like Weakness 

For a lot of us in leadership, rest either looks like weakness or unfaithfulness.

It’s actually just the opposite.

Elite athletes know that recovery is key to performance. Without sleep, nutrition and rest, your body just can’t perform at top levels.

Neither can you.

I still find it hard to be still, because rest looks like unproductive time to me. And deep down, I fear underneath that is laziness.

Most driven, tired leaders I know are anything but lazy. Laziness is resting when you’re not tired. Resting when you’re tired and building in recovery days and even seasons can be the difference between you leading for years or leading well for decades.

Rest isn’t weakness. A rested you is a better you and a sharper you.

Rest isn't weakness. A rested you is a better you and a sharper you. Click To Tweet

Two Ways to Beat the Fatigue

Beyond the obvious “get some rest,” what can you do to defeat your fatigue?

First, monitor your ratio of output to input. If you’re consistently putting out more than you’re taking in (as covered in point 1), then adjust the ratio.

If you think about it, inputs shouldn’t be that difficult to find. Let’s say you have a 50-hour work week. Smart leaders might spend 20% of that work week learning, growing, and finding the kind of inputs that will be replenishing. Plus, that leaves you with another 118 hours when you’re not working to rest, work out, gather with friends, sleep, have fun and pursue other things that restore and develop you.

The key is to create a life you don’t need to escape from (which is the subject of my next book).

Increase input and reduce output voluntarily before exhaustion and burnout reduce your output involuntarily.

Create a life you don't need to escape from. Click To Tweet

Second, be radically proactive about self-care. 

Like Howard-John Wesley, a decade ago John Piper (a pastor of a large church with a global ministry) took a pro-active leave, and was exceptionally candid about some of the problems that were surfacing him that he wanted to address and work on.

In Piper’s case, there was no presenting ‘crisis,’ but he felt one brewing.

In Piper’s own words:

I asked the elders to consider this leave because of a growing sense that my soul, my marriage, my family, and my ministry-pattern need a reality check from the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, I love my Lord, my wife, my five children and their families first and foremost; and I love my work of preaching and writing and leading Bethlehem. I hope the Lord gives me at least five more years as the pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem.

But on the other hand, I see several species of pride in my soul that, while they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with Noël and others who are dear to me. How do I apologize to you, not for a specific deed, but for ongoing character flaws, and their effects on everybody? I’ll say it now, and no doubt will say it again, I’m sorry. Since I don’t have just one deed to point to, I simply ask for a spirit of forgiveness; and I give you as much assurance as I can that I am not making peace, but war, with my own sins.

Wise. Wise, wise, wise. Very wise.

If you start getting healthy before there’s a crisis, you’ll have fewer crises.

If you start getting healthy before there's a crisis, you'll have fewer crises. Click To Tweet

READY TO GET HEALTHIER?

the high impact leader

Exhausted thinking about how much work is ahead of you?

Good news. A small investment will pay huge dividends in getting you healthier and freeing up time to make your organization healthier.

I’d love to help you do that.

I’ve helped over 3000 leaders free up hundreds of hours each year and often 3 hours a day to do what they feel they never have time for and get healthier in the process.

The High Impact Leader course, is an online, on-demand course I designed to help you get time, energy and priorities working in your favour.

It’s perfect for leaders who feel like they never have enough time in the day to get the really important things done.

Many leaders who have taken it are recovering 3 productive hours a day.  That’s about 1000 hours of found time each year. That’s a lot of time for what matters most.

Here are what some alumni are saying about The High Impact Leader Course:

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for providing the course again. It has absolutely made an impact in my life and family already that I can’t even describe.” – Joel Rowland, Clayton County, North Carolina

“Just wow.  Thank you, thank you.” Dave Campbell,  Sioux Falls South Dakota

A game-changer.” Pam Perkins,  Colorado Springs, Colorado

Curious? Want to beat overwhelm and have the time to reflect, rest and reinvent yourself?

Click here to learn more or get instant access.

What Are You Sensing?

So, what do you think contributes to the exhaustion so many leaders feel?

And how are you learning to prevent it?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

Why Leadership Is So Exhausting—And What to Do About It

13 Comments

  1. carl on January 15, 2020 at 1:18 am

    full copper heatsink
    Lori’s copper heat sink that can be standard and custom designed.

  2. 140mm pin heatsink on January 13, 2020 at 11:04 pm

    Helpful, encouraging and insightful as always.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 14, 2020 at 2:42 pm

      Thanks!

  3. Apostle Amos Seremsni on December 19, 2019 at 1:24 am

    This writer has clearly illustrated what the majority of leaders experience in their day to day life. The need to balance output against input is very important to avoid a very common occurrence, where most church leaders and or people in various work environments end up bankrupty. Many a times, leaders have ended up failing or having nothing else to give to the church or the organisation when they are fully exhausted. That has often resulted in the leader being hit by a sudden stroke or experiencing a heart attack. It is true that technology has redesigned or extended our working time to the extend that, instead of us going to work, work now comes to us. Thank you very much for this write up.

  4. Aaron Tom on December 18, 2019 at 11:29 pm

    Powerful teaching as pastor l have learn that we need to balance input and output .

  5. Justin on December 18, 2019 at 1:27 pm

    This is why we bought a house on a lake and have a boat. We can come home from work, grab a cold beverage and either slowly cruise around the lake or find a nice quiet spot and jump in and float for a while. My stress levels drop immensely during boating season when I have this opportunity to rest and relax nearly every evening.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 19, 2019 at 5:06 pm

      That’s outstanding.

      I can’t wait for boating season to arrive.

  6. Isaiah on December 18, 2019 at 1:02 pm

    Helpful, encouraging and insightful as always. This exhaustion is real in leadership but is just as real in life for those who may not hold a leadership title or position. A cultural moment that we need to learn to navigate. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  7. Perry Kallevig on December 18, 2019 at 11:21 am

    A+ article, Carey, A+. So relevant and real.

    Thanks for being a blessing and making a difference in the lives of others.

    Merry Christmas!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 19, 2019 at 5:06 pm

      Thanks Perry!

  8. Cory Hallett on December 18, 2019 at 6:44 am

    This is so good, and I can relate to this. I recently resigned from being the lead pastor of the church I started. My output went way beyond my input. I came to the place where I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. God opened up a door for me to join the team at North Point, and I’m feeling that this transition will give me an opportunity to heal from the pressures of senior leadership. I really appreciate the insight of this post, and I hope and pray I can live this out. Carey, I appreciate Your ministry, and I pray God’s continued best for you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 18, 2019 at 6:47 am

      Hey Cory…great to hear from you, and man, I feel you! I think you’ll find a great environment of healing and hope there. As you know, I know North Point well. My next book is designed to help leaders createa. life they don’t need to escape from! Hope it helps1

  9. Janis on December 17, 2019 at 11:12 pm

    I referenced a book and spoke about rest (for everybody, not just leaders) in my talk last Sunday. Congregants heard what I said, and several made adjustments (that they told me about). I’m working at doing the same. Here’s a quote from the source that I used and her 7 main types of rest. Great, big huge…

    Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith says “We have made rest synonymous with laziness, when in reality it’s the key to more energy, greater productivity, better creativity, increased happiness, and a thriving life.”

    In her 2017 book Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity, Dalton-Smith shares seven types of rest she found in short supply in many individuals:
    • Physical: The chance to use the body in restorative ways to decrease muscle tension, reduce headaches, & promote higher quality sleep.
    • Mental: The ability to quiet cerebral chatter & focus on things that matter.
    • Spiritual: The capacity to experience God in all things & recline in the knowledge of the Holy.
    • Emotional: The freedom to authentically express feelings & eliminate people-pleasing behaviors.
    • Social: The wisdom to recognize relationships which revive from ones that exhaust & how to limit exposure to toxic people.
    • Sensory: The opportunity to downgrade the endless onslaught of sensory input received from electronics, fragrances, & background noise.
    • Creative: The experience of allowing beauty to inspire awe and liberate wonder.

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