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Are you burning out?

This photo of me on my rusty and dented 1974 Norton Commando was taken a couple of years ago as I took part in The Distinguished Gentlemen’s Ride, a fundraising event that raises money for the Movember Foundation and mens health.

A few months later this same bike suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure that left me stranded in the countryside. A friendly landowner kindly allowed me to leave it overnight in a paddock, returning the next day to collect it. It was then parked in a dark corner of my garage until the COVID lockdown provided the time and space to more closely inspect it. When I eventually tore the bike down to trouble shoot the cause it became quickly evident it's internal components were pretty worn. One of the main engine components had fatigued over nearly 50 years of use and eventually snapped under the stress of riding up a long steep hill under acceleration. My bike was tired, run-down and in need of restoration. Not dissimilar to how many of us have been feeling lately.


If you’re feeling tired, fatigued, or worn-out, you’re in good company. The evidence is clear that we are amidst a stress pandemic, not just a viral one. This has been driven home for me by many conversations I’ve had with clients, colleagues, and friends as each of us grapples with sustaining ourselves through the various challenges being thrown at us right now, when it feels like we’re labouring up a long steep hill that seemingly never ends.

We’re not alone or unique here in Australia either. Every week I trawl the media and research being released globally by universities, think tanks and research organisations. As I read the various reports and papers, a theme sometimes emerges - a single thread that runs through each of them, tying separate ideas together into a cogent whole.


The big leadership topic that has been emerging recently is leadership burnout and sustainability. It’s perhaps not surprising that if most people are feeling stressed and fatigued by the onslaught of uncertainty and complexity in the world, then leaders will be feeling doubly challenged in their key roles as navigators and mobilisers.

Not only are we being expected to find a way through the mess, but we're also having to energise others to keep going, whilst reaching deep within ourselves to find the resources and resolve to keep forging ahead and put one foot in front of the other.

This article is therefore dedicated to helping each of us continue to do the important work of leadership whilst living life well, to the best of our ability.


What catalysed my thinking about the topic of leadership burnout and sustainability was the intersection of my own lived experience, my observation of many clients and a timely conversation with Audrey McGibbon, a highly regarded business psychologist and founder of the Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey. Whilst recording an episode for the Xtraordinary Leaders Podcast we focused on the issue of burnout, given that so many leaders in Australia right now remain in quite acute challenging social and economic conditions. Whilst the Australia Bureau of Statistics reported that 1 in 5 Australians were reporting high levels of psychological stress, Audrey’s research goes further to focus on the impact on leaders. In Pushed to the Brink and Beyond she highlights the immense sustained pressure that many leaders are under, and the devastating effects that it can have on the individuals concerned, as well as their teams and organisations.

This problem is compounded for our better leaders, who typically invest more in leading well and supporting their teams. This leaves them even more susceptible to burnout as I wrote in the article Your Better Leaders May be at Risk of Burning Out, sharing the research of psychologist Professor Ian Gellatly from the University of Alberta who found that more engaged leaders can experience much higher levels of stress as they help their teams navigate tough times.


So, what can we do to help ourselves as leaders, and help each other? Here’s five approaches that I’m taking or recommending to my clients to help them be sustainable right now.


Being sustainable is dependent on having the emotional, cognitive, physiological, and spiritual resources to match the demands of the moment. If demands exceed resources, we feel stressed. If that imbalance goes on for too long, we become candidates for burnout. That means as our life circumstances change, we need to rebalance.

There are a range of ways you can do this, and I’ve recorded a episode on this topic called Thriving Whilst Leading, which will be released next week on the Xtraordinary Leaders Podcast. Likewise, if you’d like to improve your own balance, we can help you using the Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey, a terrific tool for generating insights into innovations you or your team can make in your daily habits and routines that can help you be more sustainable.


The western archetype of the heroic leader is a real problem because it encourages rugged individualism and stoic solitary suffering - which is counter to the truckloads of research that shows being emotionally connecting to others, sharing our thoughts and feelings, and seeking others support is central to sustaining ourselves. If you’re caught up in the stress and the mess, you should prioritise identifying the people you trust and tale the time to deliberately connect.


Most of us are in an incredibly reactive state right now, simply responding to and countering whatever the world is throwing at us. We are also meant to create though, not just react.

Whilst reacting is often a survival response, demanding and draining, the act of creation is regenerative and replenishing, so no wonder experts recommend that prioritising creative pursuits is good for your mental health. It doesn’t matter whether its playing music, gardening, movie making, painting or woodworking, it can help destress and restore ourselves. I’ve just commenced the restoration of my worn-out Commando motorcycle in earnest, however the time spent in the garage is as much about restoring myself as it is about rejuvenating my bike.


I’ve discovered that life tends to repeatedly throw uncomfortable experiences in your face that demand you learn something about yourself. For as long as we resist the learning, the discomfort continues. However, the moment we open up to the experience and find the gift of personal growth that lies within, the tension and discomfort leave and are replaced by understanding and awareness. In my recent podcast episode Growth in a Crisis, I share my thoughts, experiences, and hard-won insights on how to use the current challenges to engage in real personal growth.


This is a biggie. Whilst lockdowns and work from home can leave us disconnected and distant from our colleagues and teammates, now is the time to reach out and provide support to others. I was reminded of just how important this is as I finished editing an interview with Col. Lee Ellis, one of the original survivors of the notorious Hanoi Hilton POW camp. Lee, now 78 and still teaching and coaching leadership and teamwork, spoke about the incredibly important role that his fellow officers and teammates played in helping each other get through the hardship of years of torture and brutal treatment.

The best thing about supporting each other is that not only is it good for others to know that we care enough to connect, enquire and listen (r u ok?) it is also tremendously good for ourselves. Personally, I have found that the moment I turn my interest and concern outwards towards the wellbeing of others, my own wellbeing improves immediately. Maybe it’s because it forces me to be less focused on my own worries and anxieties. Or perhaps it’s also because it’s much more aligned to the deeper purpose that my life and work is oriented around. Then again, it may just be because we are social animals, deeply programmed by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution to connect with and support each other.

Whatever the reason, it’s important that we support each other in the mess.

Also, whilst I’ve learned an enormous amount over the last decade about fixing and restoring classic motorcycles, I still frequently call upon the skills of expert mechanics and engineers to help me solve the more knotty and difficult problems I encounter. In a similar way I’d like to think that I and the team at Xtraordinary Leaders are a bit like these highly experienced and well-equipped mechanics - we have many tools and techniques that can help you respond, learn, and grow productively in response to the challenges of life and leadership.

So please, if I or any member of the team can be of support to you, your own team, or your leaders please reach out. We’d love to help.


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