Napoleon said it best: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”* When we get worn down, we are less optimistic, less creative, less willing to take risks and do hard things — all of which are required for good leadership. For years I have been thinking about – in my own life and for the people I coach – sustainable leadership.
How can I live my life as a leader in a way that is sustainable? How can I expand my influence without shrinking my soul?
Tony Schwartz has a great article on the Harvard Business review on this theme. It’s written for CEO’s and other business leaders, but the points he makes are applicable to non-profit and church settings as well. He starts out by issuing the warning: he’s hearing more and more from business leaders who are teetering on the edge of burnout.
The day of reckoning seems to have arrived. During the past month alone, no less than a half dozen senior executives have told me that fatigue, exhaustion and even burnout are the biggest issues they’re facing both for themselves and among their troops…
One CEO of a multinational company told me that just dealing with time differences had left him so exhausted he was seriously considering quitting. Another CEO at a much-admired company told me that for the first time, he’s losing truly valued employees who say they simply can’t take it anymore. In a recent survey at a third organization, over 80% of the top 400 leaders reported they spend the majority of their days feeling negative emotions, fueled in large part by overload and overwhelm.
Substitute “pastor” for CEO, and I think you have an accurate picture of what’s happening in many churches as well. I also whole-heartedly agree with Schwartz’s observation that one way to tell if fatigue is setting into an organization is the prevalence of negative emotional energy. As he puts it:
Fatigue can be hard to read. Negativity, however, is a leading indicator, and it’s often overlooked. With precious few exceptions, negative emotions are hurtful, toxic, and destructive — to ourselves and to others. Obvious as this may seem, most of us spend a good deal of time feeling impatient, frustrated, angry, or anxious, defensive, and fearful without fully recognizing why these emotions arise so persistently or the toll they take.
What’s especially challenging about this for churches is that often church members are running on empty, and they bring their negative emotions into their interactions in the church. So as pastors, we must deal with – and work to compensate for – the frustration, anxiety, and defensiveness that we experience with church members. That’s hard enough to do when we are at our best. But when we are struggling with burnout ourselves … it’s really challenging.
This is one of the main themes we focus on in the coaching groups that I run for Christian leaders. As leaders we need to pay attention to our own souls and make self-renewal a priority. If we don’t, we will get sucked into negativity, anxiety, and eventually burnout. In his article, Schwartz suggests that the solution for the current crisis of unsustainable leadership patterns is to “ennoble the role of renewal” in business organizations. Sounds like a good idea for churches too.
* By the way, the quote at the beginning of this article has been attributed variously to Napoleon, George Patton, and Vince Lombardi. I’m sticking with Napoleon.