Outside of three weeks of paternity leave with my family, I have not taken any vacation or leave time since before the COVID pandemic began in March. And though paternity leave was an amazing time for my family and I, it certainly wasn’t a restful time. Bottom line is…I’m tired. Yes, I’m passionate about and love what I do, but it’s been a long year with little to no respite. I believe many are in a similar boat as me – we are at or near professional burnout.
It takes a lot to bring engaged leadership, optimism and energy, and deliberate development to our people and organizations. Burnt-out leaders can’t do that effectively. And while it is important to take necessary time for vacation and rest as leaders, we may not always be able to do that on our own timelines. As much as possible, we need to be resilient leaders able to keep showing up every day and bring the purpose, direction, and motivation that our people are entitled to.
So, we need to talk about ways to avoid burning-out and being resilient leaders able to sustain our personal and collective organizational responsibilities. It’s easy to talk about the idea of being resilient leaders, but hard to enact it day in and day out.
To help contribute this is important conversation of leadership, resiliency, and burnout – I offer nine practical things that help me show up every day and to maintain a full “leadership cup”…because we can’t pour into others from an empty cup. I expect that by sprinkling these small habits or actions over our schedule each week and month, we are able to remain being the leaders we desire to be and that our people deserve for the long haul.
1 – Be Clear & Reflect on Your Purpose
What gives you purpose every single day? Are you clear on your life’s purpose, your top identities and values, and why you do what you do? I think defining and being super clear on these essential life “core” philosophies enable us to remain inspired by and committed to what we do each day. Because when life and work get tough, we are anchored to our enduring “why” and are able to endure.
Personally, I am passionate about making people and organizations better through leader development. Everything I do from family, faith, and work are tied to that purpose. Even in my current role, where I focus more on behind-the-scenes management, I am able to connect what I do to making our organization and people better. That keeps me inspired every day no matter how unsexy my daily work is.
If you’re interested in exploring this idea of a core personal purpose, I recommend you check out Stephen Covey’s, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. His habit 2 of “begin with the end in mind” touches on the idea of a personal mission statement. This was my gateway into clarifying my life’s and work’s purpose. You can also look into Discover Your True North, by Bill George.
How do your daily behaviors and priorities at work connect to this essential core?
It’s important to note that this is an iterative process which takes time. We won’t establish this core concept in a single, short reflection session. Personally, it’s taken me years to establish a life purpose or mission concept and refine it to what it is today.
2 – Leader Solitude
We cannot spend our time as leaders reacting to life and work’s urgent matters each day. We need to create time to focus on the important and non-urgent matters (reference the urgent-important grid popularized by The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People below). Leaders need time to think, to reflect on how things are now and how they can be in the future for the organization, and to create mechanisms for organizational development.
So, look to schedule “leader solitude” time in your calendar each week (more on your calendar below). Can you start by dedicating 1-hour a week to disconnect (silence and put the phone away, close your email, close your office door or go to a quiet place) and engage in reflective thinking and/or urgent-unimportant work?
I recommend leaders interested in learning more about leader solitude to turn to Lead Yourself First, by Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin.
3 – Own Your Calendar
Look at your calendar and what you scheduled (or was scheduled for you) over the last four weeks. How do you routinely spend your time? What is the percentage of time that you spend in each quadrant of the urgent-important grid above? Are you a victim of your schedule? If so, we need to regain control of it.
Steven Covey (and Doug Meyer) remind us that “the key is not to prioritize your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” We need to put the big rocks on our calendar first, before the unimportant “sand” of life and work fill our jar (reference “big rocks” leadership to explore the analogy more).
In a new social-professional environment so defined by remote work today, everyone is easily accessible by a simple MS Teams or Zoom call. Through this, I’ve found that I must be ruthless about what does and does not go onto my calendar. I am often overwhelmed with casual invites to sit in remote meetings now, while so many of them are not important or worth our time. Unfortunately, I’ve had to apply the “not my rater, not my problem” principle as a litmus test to what makes it onto my calendar. That means that if it is not something directly tied to my boss’s priorities, something that will impact him/her or the organization, or directed by my boss – then it likely won’t make it on my calendar or take my time.
4 – “Leader Tank” Habits
We cannot remain inspired or continue to improve if we don’t engage in and prioritize our own self-development. I need to do something at least a few times a week to pour into my leadership tank.
These don’t have to be massive time-consuming habits. For me, I schedule the first 10-minutes of my workday toward self-development and reflection. I read one professional article (an archived piece from HBR, blog, etc.) and then spend the remainder of the 10-minutes typing out my highlights and margin notes from a book I read. 10-minutes a day isn’t much but can add up over time when done routinely. I also try to read 10-pages a night from my current book before I go to bed.
These habits keep me inspired, for one. But they also help me maintain perspective by being able to look above and beyond my current work context.
5 – Seize Developmental Opportunities
Does your team or larger organization offer developmental opportunities like lectures, classes, etc.? If so, seize them! Not only are they great learning opportunities, but they also help engage the inspiration and leader perspective concepts addressed above.
My current organization presents many lecture opportunities from military and non-military leaders. I’ve found that I always walk away from those refreshed and re-energized about what I do (and why I do it). Don’t hesitate to jump on developmental activities like that and secure them on your calendar.
6 – Spend Time with People
Spending time with people (especially junior Soldiers for my work) gives me energy. Sometimes, the most important thing we can do is just get out of the office, even if overwhelmed by unimportant urgent work, and spend time with our people. I promise some time spent with your most junior people will re-energize you and remind you of why you do what you do.
Leaders can explore leadership by wandering around to learn more on how to maximize leader presence opportunities.
7 – Talk It Out
A great way to reflect and process current challenges is to talk it out with a peer coach or mentor. These can be simple, casual lunches with a colleague or mentor to merely talk about how life and work are going right now. But physically talking it out can lighten the perceived burden and stress of work, and also allow us to process issues with someone that provides different perspectives and ways of thinking.
Having dedicated peer coaches enable me to process each day, from my wife to talk through my day when I come home to a respected colleague to discuss work challenges in one of our offices. I also always say yes when a mentee wants to get lunch to talk; I can create an opportunity for their processing and hopefully provide some perspective. The lunch may need to occur later in the week or next week based on schedules, but I always elect to support those kinds of requests.
8 – Have a Selfish Habit
We all just need a little “leader self-care” every once in a while. I try and squeeze every drop of efficiency and productivity from my day that I can – getting to the office early, working while I eat lunch, working on other tasks while listening in to remote meetings, etc. But this can be draining, both within the context of the big picture but also just within a single day! So, don’t be afraid to have a selfish habit that you can turn to when you need.
For me, that may look like getting to the office early so that I can take a late morning pause to go for a run. Or that may be simply to get out of the office and go grab lunch with a trusted colleague (as mentioned above) or a mid-day pick-me-up at the nearby coffee shop.
9 – Show Gratitude
Fred De Witt Van Amburgh is credited with saying, “Gratitude is a currency that we can mint for ourselves and spend without fear of bankruptcy.” Expressing gratitude to others helps us to engage with our people, but really to help us recognize that there is a lot to be grateful for and worth celebrating.
Incorporate expressing gratitude as a small routine in your schedule each week or so. You can learn a few ways how HERE.
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