Leadership: Burning Bright Or Burning Out

Burning at Both Ends

Life is full of change. And change is going to happen whether you chose to accept it or not. Change resonates with each of us on an individual basis based on our experiences and with the seasons of life.

I like you, have had to make adjustments in my personal life due to change.

“Change has affected me as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend, not to mention employee, student, colleague, retiree, and business partner”.

Digesting Change

Acceptance of change and being approachable to change are two different things.

Accepting change allows us to realize that we have some degree of control over relationships, decision-making, and our life’s directions; but no control over natural disasters, death, or acts of God. Being approachable to change allows for a smooth transition to gathering time, talent, and knowledge.

“However, when burnout is added to the equation of accepting change, your perspective of change will be compromised and life as you knew it may become grueling.”

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a cluster of emotions coupled with physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. It is the result of constant and frequent emotional upheaval associated with people at home and in the workplace.

Burnout is created by an environment with too many pressures and not enough support.

People who experience burn out develop negative self-concepts and job attitudes, while becoming:

  • Detached
  • Uninterested
  • Unreceptive
  • Unapproachable

Talking Burnout

According to Andree Brooks who published an article in the New York Times December 8, 1985 on Talking Burnout; board member pressures can become so intense at times that they bring on a severe case of burnout. This is no laughing matter, as anyone who has been through it will confirm.

The following are some common tensions of serving on a board:

  •  Sense of overwhelming fatigue
  •  Distressing feeling that nobody appreciates the time and effort put into the task without pay
  •  Fear that no other board member could do the job

 Cause of Burnout

Such feelings can make a board member irritable, less effective, and downright resentful. Once you understand the causes of burnout it can help those board members in prospect to take the necessary mental precautions. In addition, interim and incumbent leaders can try to change their attitudes and practices to get some relief if they sense burnout.

I have found in my experience with non-profits that there are five causes of nonprofit board burnout are.

They are:

  • Life Transitions
  • Personality & Conflicts
  • Prolonged Struggles
  • Dysfunction
  • Leadership Issues

Burning Down the House

Unexpected changes can dramatically alter abilities or availability to serve on a board or any high position. Additionally, prolonged problems and struggles can quickly take a toll on people in high positions, sucking the life right out of them by zapping drive and motivation.

Also forming dysfunction are these elements of organizations:

  • Dissension among the ranks
  • Lack of structure
  • Tensions among board members
  • Poor listening skills
  • Elevated self-perception during trying times or crisis

Furthermore, leadership issues come in a variety of forms, from revolving top down management, being  understaffed, and lack of strong governing structure just to name a few. All the above are forms of burnout.

Burnout Test

Have you experienced burnout? Want to find out if what you are feeling is associated with burnout?


Take the burnout test and rate yourself on the scale provided. Take the Burnout Test. (Adapted from the Freudenberger Burnout Scale)

For each of the fifteen questions, choose a number from 0- 5 that shows how you have felt during the last 3 months.

  • Scores 0-25: You are doing fine!
  • Scores 26-35: Watch out; you are at risk…
  • Scores 36-50: You are a candidate for burnout…
  • Scores 51-65: You are burning out quickly…
  • Scores 65+: You are burned out.

(This test is not meant to replace a clinical assessment but to help you judge how you are doing. If your score is high you may need to seek help.)

Addressing the Issues

Burnout issues need to be addressed before bringing on additional or new board members since most people have better things to do with their time than watch mini-dramas play out at the meeting.

“When life throws you a curve ball, make lemonade!” ~Arrian Binnings’ mom

When life throws a board member a curve ball, one of the best thing that can happen is for the Board to step up to the plate and demonstrate compassionate care for their board member and offer them a leave of absence or a graceful transition from the Board.

These particular members don’t need any further burdens of guilt added to their already over stressed load.

One final thought; leaders suffering from burnout are doing too much. Ask them what they are willing to surrender. Remember, when you surrender, you lose the battle (the burnout) but not the war (your purpose).

How can you help leaders overcome, reverse, and cope with burnout? One way is to use leaders to their fullest potential. How will you use leaders to their fullest potential? Look at yourself, are you part of the problem? Take personal inventory of yourself and when wrong, promptly admit it?


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Debra Olejownik is a partner with DJC Core Consulting & Support Services, LLC
She uses mind mapping to help clients navigate change & guide them to solutions
Email | LinkedIn | Web 

Image Sources: 3.bp.blogspot.com

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