Leading When Your Tank is Empty

By Deb Busser
Deb Busser

"Burnout… is the sum total of hundreds and thousands of tiny betrayals of purpose, each one so minute that it hardly attracts notice."
Richard Gunderman

It has been said that burnout is the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest. In my work with leaders, I have seen this to be true. I’ve also witnessed is a lot of pain and denial before leaders actually acknowledge that this is the source of their malaise.

A recent Inc. article shared how successful leaders often overcome great adversity, “through mental toughness, with no help,” and noted this can also be what brings them down.

Sometimes described as “overachiever syndrome, burnout predominantly happens to high performers.”

Some things to be aware of when your fuel gauge is getting low:

  • The more you explain away your overwhelm/exhaustion/disinterest/ cynicism/obsessiveness, the more you actually accelerate the process.
  • Because you are used to being amazing and successful, your ego and your fear will prevent you from getting help.
  • There is no going back to normal. There can however, be a new normal.

If any of this resonates with you, make some time for introspection and notice what is most sapping your energy. What areas of your life are suffering: Your relationships? Your mental, physical, or spiritual health? What tiny betrayals of purpose have you allowed?

How to re-fuel:

  • Get back ‘on purpose’. At some level you know you have been compromising your values. Shift your attention to the things that are most important vs. most urgent.
  • Admit that you need help and engage your support system. At work, lean on the talented team you’ve been developing. At home, enlist your spouse, kids, extended family, or paid help to create the space you need to replenish.
  • Remember what makes you feel happy and alive, and do that–before you tackle the next difficult thing on your agenda. Forget saving the play for after the work, especially when there is no end of work in sight. Shifting your energy first will make everything that comes after easier.
  • Journal, meditate, or talk with a trusted friend who has seen you through good times and bad, and take stock. Burnout happens over a long period of time. Determine whether your current state is a temporary slump, or whether it is pointing to something bigger.
  • Engage in some analysis around how to stop your fuel loss. Using the change model from the book, Triggers, by Marshall Goldsmith, determine what you can create, what you want to preserve, what you can eliminate, and what you may have to accept regarding your current situation.
  • Allow yourself to dream about the future, and notice where it takes you. Per Sir Richard Branson, “Life’s too short to waste your time doing things that don’t light your fire.” It may be time to allow yourself to let go of what is, in favor of what could be, if your fire can’t be re-lit.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Demonstrate some self-compassion. Acknowledge how far you’ve come and how hard you have worked. And then go fill your tank. It is the most leader-like thing you can do.