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The act of realizing a clear and compelling vision by inspiring others might seem pretty straightforward at first glance: You set a stake in the ground and convince others to move with you. And yet, even a passing glance at the front page of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal evidences the opposite. Leadership is hard, and it can go so, so wrong.
Burnout in the ranks of executive decision makers is on the rise, and stressors exacerbated by the pandemic have contributed to the number of departing CEOs climbing by 16% in the final quarter of 2021 year-over-year, according to the executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, and it’s no surprise why.
Leadership is an activity that can completely consume one’s physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual energy, and without adequately accounting for that fact, many will be on a fast track to burnout. However, there are ways to build resilience to help ward off those dangers.
1. Managing personal resources
Knowing your own energy levels as well as how to harness them best is a prerequisite for successful leadership. We can drive the nicest car in the world, but without gas (or sufficient charge) it will never leave the driveway. Furthermore, if we fill up the tank but go too far, too fast and too soon, we may end up stranded in the middle of nowhere. It’s vital to be aware of when to refill yours and how fast to drive to avoid running out of energy.
There’s also the matter of how to fuel up, and this may look a little different for everyone — some do it by reading at home or tending to a garden, while others might be energized by socializing and traveling. I get mine from playing ice hockey with friends every Saturday night.
Dedicated refueling also means prioritizing quality over quantity. We can take the day off to go to a spa, but if that time is partially spent answering emails while in the jacuzzi or taking phone calls during a massage, is that genuinely energizing? No matter how much or how little time off of that kind you have, make sure it is wholly protected from outside distractions. Don’t wait until you’re stalled out on the side of the road. Find your unique wellspring of energy early and apply the discipline needed for consistent refueling.
2. Managing stress
Leadership is inherently stressful. There will never come a quarter without its share of curveballs, whether professional or personal, and if we are unable to manage the resulting stress, we will not be able to perform at optimal levels — will essentially be refueling a tank with a hole in it.
In order to combat stress, it’s necessary to build in daily self-care practices. For example, I try to take a walk outside in the middle of each workday to reset my nervous system. One could also incorporate calming practices like yoga, mindfulness or journaling; what works best will be different for everyone.
It’s equally vital to take a planned, disciplined approach to extended time off. One key question to ask is, “Is this vacation going to give me energy or might it take some away?” For example, traveling with family and/or children, while important and enriching for our relationships, can be stressful. So, be careful when planning trips like these or you risk returning to work exhausted from logistics planning, child-care needs and family feuds. Additionally, set boundaries as far as checking in with work is concerned (only 7% of senior leadership unplug entirely while on vacation, according to a report by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence).
Also be mindful of what type of vacation you may need at any given time, then make sure you actually take it. Vacations and time off are not simply added bonuses at the end of the year — they are essential to managing stress, because no one is immune to it and no one is without a personal life. The simple truth is that it is impossible to take care of a healthy organization if we do not take care of ourselves first. So, in the parlance of air travel, put on your own oxygen mask before you start handing them out to others: You can’t lead if you can’t breathe.
3. Managing those around you
People come to work with a variety of backgrounds, each one dealing with a distinct set of stressors. Our job as leaders is to bring this disparate group together to work toward a shared mission. However, corralling a wide range of personalities is much easier said than done. In order to manage teams, leaders must balance the emotional needs of employees with the requirements of high performance.
How do we do that? To start, set clear expectations — detail what we expect from staff members, then ask if they have a full understanding. After all, if we are to hold them accountable for performance, they must first know what they’re being measured against.
Finally, it’s an age-old adage that courageous leaders tend to lead by example: What we expect from our employees, professionally and behaviorally, we need to model in our actions. If we do not display the skills necessary to manage stress and stay focused, then employees may not either. It’s a two-way street: When we build resilience in ourselves, we build resilience in our team.
With the many unexpected twists and turns that inevitably occur along the journey toward realizing an organization’s vision, it’s vital that a leader remain focused and dedicated regardless of everyday challenges. Some of those will be predictable, while others come screaming out of the blue, and they all produce stress. Leadership can be exhausting, and if we are not careful, burnout or derailment just might stop us in our tracks. However, a disciplined approach to maintaining energy levels, managing stress and managing people will build the resilience required to ensure that your tank never reaches empty.