The Causes and Cure for Leadership Burnout

Leadership is tough. Good leaders understand this and manage their lives and leadership demands to avoid burnout. Sometimes, however, even the best leaders get burned out. If you’re now facing it, examine the cause list below to see what factors may be contributing to it. Then, take one proactive step this week from the cures list to take better care of yourself.

4 Causes of Leadership Burnout:

1. Allostatic load.

This term describes the wear and tear on our body from chronic stress. Our bodies have limits. Yet, when we are under stress for long periods of time, our bodies suffer. Prolonged stress causes sustained high levels of the stress hormone cortisol which, along with an overabundance of other neurotransmitters and hormones, can cause heart problems, weight gain, impaired immunity, decreased memory due to brain cell atrophy, and diminished brain functioning. 

2. Power stress.

Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, authors of Resonant Leadership, coined this phrase to describe a kind of stress unique to leaders. “Power stress is part of the experience that results from the exercise of influence and sense of responsibility felt in leadership positions.” McKee and Boyatzis explain that when the demands of leadership get so high and leaders fail to manage it, they risk becoming trapped in what they call the Sacrifice Syndrome. Sometimes we leaders feel so overly responsible for the success of our organizations or churches that we get caught in a vicious cycle of unhealthy sacrifice for others that leads to burnout.

3. Continuous partial attention. 

Linda Stone, author and consultant, developed this phrase to describe the mental trap we easily fall into when we constantly scan our surroundings to look for the best opportunities to spend our time on. It happens when we ‘skim,’ and pay attention, only partially. When this happens to a leader, he will fail to focus on the most important tasks at hand and get further behind on mission critical issues. Then, he must rush to get the important things done which contributes to chronic stress.

4. Multi-tasking. 

“Many leaders have convinced themselves that multitasking leads to greater productivity. However, researchers have shown that when we try to process two mental tasks at once, our mental capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old. And it can reduce our mental capacities as if we missed a night’s sleep or smoked pot (Rock, 2009, pp. 34– 36). Multitasking can also diminish long-term memory (Foerde et al., 2006). Even college students who multitasked with their laptops while in a class scored lower on tests than did students who didn’t multitask. And students who could see others multitasking also scored lower. So multitasking decreases others’ productivity as well as our own (Sana et al., 2013).” (from People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone).

In fact, research shows that multitasking can add up to a 40% loss of productivity in a day. This decrease in productivity is called task switch cost. 

So, what can we do to combat these factors that lead to burnout? Consider these steps.

4 Cures of Leadership Burnout:

1. Exercise.

For years research has shown that exercise benefits our body. But recent research has discovered that it benefits our brains as well. When we exercise it causes our brains to release a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain. It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. The better we take care of our brains, the better leaders we will be. 

2. Statio.

Statio describes a Christian monastic practice that we might call a mini-transition between events of the day. It’s a moment between moments when we pause from once task before going to the next. It allows us to break our hurry, obtain closure from the prior task, and prepare our hearts and minds for what comes next. Leaders who practice this can turn down their body’s fight-flight system (the sympathetic nervous system) and engage the rest and digest system (the parasympathetic system) which makes us calmer. Read this post by Daniel Schroeder to learn more about statio.

3. Sleep.

“When we don’t get enough sleep, we rob our brains of important neural functions because the brain is actually very active during sleep. Although the brain never really shuts down, it’s only truly at rest during non-REM sleep, which accounts for only 20 percent of our normal sleep cycle. During the other 80 percent, sleep helps the brain encode, strengthen, stabilize, and consolidate our memories from the day. Our brain replays what we have learned during the day (Medina, 2009, p. 164) to make our memories stick. Sleep also plays an important role in learning.” (from Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry by Charles Stone (Kindle Locations 1671-1675))

4. Get off the grid.

In our 24-7 connected world, our smart phones can actually keep us on high alert and in stress mode. I find that if I choose a 24-hour period (my Sabbath) when I don’t check email, I’m much more at peace. Getting off the grid helps disengage my mind and slow my internal pace. I’d also encourage you to turn off the automatic notifications function on your smart phone and on your computer.

What has helped you avoid burnout as a leader?

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7 Thinking Errors that Hinder Church Growth

My first degree, industrial engineering, taught me to think systematically which has in turn benefited my pastoral leadership. Since then I’ve read many books on church planning and been certified through Ministry Advantage and Auxano, two strategic planning/pastoral coaching organizations. I’ve also led three churches where I’ve served through a year-long strategic planning process. So, I’m well-versed and trained in the church visioning/planning process. Yet, of all the books I’ve read on strategic planning, Will Mancini’s book, Church Unique is the best. In his chapter called “Lost on the Way to Your Own DNA,” he lists subtle thinking patterns that can hinder church growth. He calls these patterns ‘thinkholes.’ I’ve listed them here with brief definitions.

Ministry “thinkholes.”

  1. The ministry treadmill: busyness eliminates time for reflection. 
    • leads to just adding more programs
  2. The competency trap: presumption that past methods will continue to work decreases appetite for learning.
    • leads to just working harder
  3. The needs based slippery slope: consumerism removes the need for discernment.
    • leads to trying to make people happy
  4. The cultural whirlpool 1: BuzzChurch-innovation short circuits self-awareness.
    • leads to just trying to be cutting edge
  5. The cultural whirlpool 2: StuckChurch-change outpaces the discipline for learning.
    • leads to glorifying the past
  6. The conference maze: success increases the temptation to copycat. 
    • leads to simply modeling best practices
  7. The denominational rut: resources disregard local uniqueness.
    • leads to just protecting theology

At times I’ve been caught up in these thinkholes. How about you?

What other thinkholes would you add to this list?

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The 3 Kinds of People in Every Church

In Judson Edward’s book, The Leadership Labyrinth, he describes 21 paradoxes in ministry. He defines the ‘relationship paradox’ in this way: the people who like you the most will be the ones you try least to please. He then writes that these three kinds of people fill every church.

  • The energizers: their very presence makes us feel better, buoys our spirits, and fills our tank.
  • The regular folks: they may not buoy our spirits, but they don’t demoralize us either. They make up the largest group in a church.

The main difference between the energizers and the drainers are their expectations of us. The energizers don’t place great expectations on us. The drainers do.

We don’t measure up to the drainers expectations. Either our preaching or counseling or leading or availability is not enough. These subtle unmet expectations may not be overt, but when we are around these people, we feel their unspoken disapproval.

Edwards pens these profound words.

“When our credo becomes ‘I am as you desire me,’ we have lost the very thing that will enable us to minister effectively: our authenticity.”

Edwards rounds out his chapter with three insights into how Jesus responded to his drainers.

  • First, Jesus retreated from this drainers to refresh himself and seek God. He regularly sought renewal.
  • Second, Jesus balanced his drainers with his energizers.
  • Third, Jesus didn’t allow the drainers to deter him from his plan and purpose.

Although Jesus practiced a rhythm of renewal and time away from his drainers, he never got rid of them. He still had to contend with them, just as we pastors must do in our churches.

Not everyone liked Jesus. Not everyone will like us. But God’s grace gives us what we need to serve even the most draining drainers.

What other categories of church people would you add to this list?

If this post resonates with you, you may enjoy my third book that released last year: People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership. It was one of this year’s Outreach Resource of the Year Recommendation in leadership.

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9 Ways Great Leaders Communicate

Great leaders are great communicators. Communication certainly includes making a great speech, or for pastors, delivering a compelling sermon. That kind of communication is important, but it’s less so than communicating well one-on-one. I recently finished reading neuroscientist Andrew Newberg’s book, Words Can Change your Brain. His book suggests 12 key neuroscience based communication practices. I’ve included nine here with some brief comments.

Nine ways great leaders communicate:

1. They convey a relaxed demeanor.

They’re not tense or frazzled. People pick up on our emotional tone, whether it’s good or bad. It’s called emotional contagion. So when we’re relaxed, it encourages the other person to relax as well.

2. They stay fully present for the person they’re talking to.

They’re not in a rush to move on to something or someone else. They don’t look over the other person’s shoulder. Rather, they make genuine eye contact. Eye contact stimulates the social networks of our brains, decreases the stress hormone cortisol, and increases the neurotransmitter oxytocin which has been called the trust chemical, all of which enhance communication.

3. They practice inner stillness and quietness.

This reflects the Psalmists words in Psalms 46.10. Be still and know that I am God.

4. They pay attention to non-verbal cues in the face and body of the person with whom they’re talking.

Our words seldom fully convey what we really think and feel. However, our eyes, face, and tone communicate much of what we do think and feel. If we don’t pay attention to the non-verbal, communication will suffer.

5. They express appreciation and gratitude.

People yearn to hear encouragement from their leaders. Authentic praise for a job well done makes huge deposits in the souls of those around us. And, when we give a compliment at the end of a conversation, it’s actually received better than one given at the beginning of a conversation.

6. They speak with a warm tone.

A warm tone can set the stage for effective communication whereas a harsh or negative tone can set up resistance in the other person.

7. They speak slowly.

When we speak slowly, those listening can comprehend us better and it can help calm an anxious person.

8. They speak briefly.

They don’t hog the conversation with their words. Since our brain can only hold so much information at once in our working memory, speaking for shorter lengths of time improves communication by helping the listener retain more of what we say.

9. They listen deeply.

To listen deeply means that we don’t let our minds wander but that we give our full attention to the other person speaking.

Try some of these practices the next time you talk to someone and see what difference it can make.

What would you add to this list?

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11 Bad Listening Habits Leaders must Avoid

Listening is one of the most important competencies a leader can use. Leaders who listen well, lead well.

But sometimes even good leaders slip into bad listening habits. As you read these bad habits below, mentally check which one(s) you most easily slip into.

Lisa J. Downs, author, listening expert, and former president of the American Society for Training and Development believes this list captures our worst listening habits.

  1. Daydreaming: thinking about unrelated topics when someone else is speaking.
  2. Debating: carrying on an inner argument about what is being said.
  3. Judging: letting negative views influence us.
  4. Problem solving: yearning to give unasked for advice.
  5. Pseudo-listening: pretending to be a good listener.
  6. Rehearsing: planning what you want to say next.
  7. Stage hogging: redirecting the conversation to suit your own goals.
  8. Ambushing: gathering information to use against the other person.
  9. Selective listening: only responding to the parts of the conversation that interest us.
  10. Defensive listening: taking everything personally.
  11. Avoidant listening: blocking out what you don’t want to hear

How many of these bad listening habits have you inadvertently slipped into?

If you mentally checked one or more, consider these tips.

  1. Ask a close friend to give you feedback on how well you listen.
  2. As you listen to someone, monitor your thoughts to catch yourself before you slip into one of these habits. The term for monitoring your thoughts is called metacognition, thinking about your thinking.
  3. Simply talk less. The acronym WAIT has helped me listen better and talk less. It stands for Why Am I Talking?
  4. Read the book Words can Change Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman. It’s an insightful book on communication from which this list came.

What other bad listening habits have you experienced from yourself or from others?

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