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

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You’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 megachurch 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 the implosion of athletes, one common theme is that many of them were tired…dead tired. (I offer some thoughts on why megachurch 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 this 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 output ratio 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, but 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 getting 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, 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 a 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 workweek 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 proactive 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

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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.