The Burned Out Leader

KarenClient Success, Leadership

When I’m asked about the “real” challenges facing leaders these days, I don’t talk about making tough decisions, or dealing with uncertainty. Not specifically, at least.

Yes, making decisions in a VUCA world is tough.

Running a business at the extremes (over capacity as in health care, downsizing as in hospitality, travel and retail) or shifting the product/service offering (financial services) – those challenges are difficult, no question.

What I’m finding, though, is that the business decisions aren’t what’s taking the biggest toll.

I believe that burnout is emerging as a crisis at the top.

I’m not describing stress. Stress – at its acceptable level – can drive great performance. Stress, in moderation, is useful. Stress is not burnout.

Burnout is deeper, chronic, a result of sustained stress. Burnout means depletion of the resources used for recovery from stress.

Burnout happens in times of overwhelm. Uncertainty. High demand. Extremes. Lack of control. Work/life imbalance.

Any of that sound familiar?

I’m in conversations every day with people who trust me as the one place they can share their true feelings. And what at least some of them are feeling is deep exhaustion, hopelessness and a sense that they cannot sustain what’s being asked of them right now.

They are dealing with the weight of their business responsibility AND the weight of the welfare of the people on their teams. They’re concerned about their families and friends. They’re shouldering the load of unprecedented stress and uncertainty for numerous stakeholders and there are few, if any, places where they can share their own fears. They can’t let their guards down and be vulnerable.

Yet they persist. Because they have to. Which is the problem.

I am by no means an expert nor am I in any way trained in clinical mental health. But I do want to flag something that I have recently come to understand as an issue.

I’m talking about stress-induced depressive illness. Depression as an eventual outcome of sustained, overwhelming stress usually masked by “handling” things. Until handling things just can’t be done any more.

What might feel like exhaustion and overwhelm can, if sustained over a long period of time and not taken care of, evolve into a more serious mental health issue. And right now, some of our most visible, respected and accomplished leaders are suffering, with no respite in sight.

I was recently asked by the team at the Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship at Ivey Business School to offer a few thoughts and observations about what I am seeing with leaders. What I offer is a combination of suggestions to apply towards team members and suggestions for leaders to use for themselves. It skims the surface, but it’s a start.

If you are a leader, someone to whom others are looking for cues as to how to process what’s going on, there has never been a more critical time than now to lead by example. Which means taking care of yourself, and trusting that prioritizing your own well-being is the best possible leadership behaviour you can adopt.

Start – or deepen – a mindfulness practice. It helps the brain focus, helps manage adrenaline and cortisol levels, re-oxygenates the body and provides a momentary respite from frenetic activity.

Take breaks. Frequent, short ones, and meaningful longer ones at regular intervals. Reduce or eliminate your negative news inputs. Say no to non-critical meetings, requests and activities. Move. Connect with family and friends, even virtually. Divert your attention with an activity you enjoy. Breathe outdoor air. Do as much as you can to inject beneficial and positive energy into your day. And ask for help if you need it.

Note: We at Parachute Executive Coaching are constructing some programs and groups specifically designed to help leaders cope with their unique challenges in this very difficult time. If you’d like information, please contact