Leadership Exhaustion and a Spirit of Adventure

By Tod Bolsinger

June 24, 2020

De Pree Journal

“You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?”

“The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest,” I repeated woodenly, as if I might exhaust myself completely before I reached the end of the sentence. “What is it, then?”

“The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.”

This interaction in Crossing the Unknown Sea between poet David Whyte and Brother David Steindl-Rast has haunted me for years. Whenever I find myself in moments when tiredness moves past weariness to exhaustion, I come back to this conversation.

Lately, as I talk with all types of leaders, I hear a lot of exhaustion. Take for example a conversation I had with a pastor. Even through the computer screen I could see the weariness and discouragement on the pastor’s face as we spoke on a web call.

If having to “close” the church sanctuary was bad, trying to “reopen” it is worse as people who are polarized by the perceived politics of face-masks and social distancing are pitted against each other. If trying to lead a company to think about being more committed to diversity is hard, trying to actually dismantle systemic racism triggers angry responses from employees and customers. If trying to counter declining membership was difficult when church members were more church-shopping consumers, it’s deeply discouraging when changing churches is as easy as the click of a computer touchpad.

“My in-box is a terrible place to be right now,” he said.

And lately—amidst the lingering crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic and the increase of demonstrations in the wake of the killing of George Floyd—in Zoom calls and webinars, phone calls and emails, this theme keeps coming up. As challenges increase in this unprecedented moment in our lifetimes, and conflicts rise within communities with long-ties, leaders everywhere are overwhelmed and exhausted and it makes sense.

Far more difficult—and exhausting—to leaders than the challenges that face them outside the organization is the resistance to change inside the organization.

Resistance to our leadership from the very people we are called to lead, eventually endangers the fire-in-the-belly for the challenges in front of us. What began as a “once-more-into-the breech” charge, now feels like we are spending all our time with weary wilderness walkers complaining about manna. Soon, we are ambivalent, discouraged, and drained.  But what can we do to face this resistance? What can we do to muster the enthusiasm to overcome our exhaustion?

In the conversation between David Whyte and Brother David there is an insight that helps point the way forward. “The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness,” Brother David offers.  And then he continues, “You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need something to which you can give your full powers……You must do something heartfelt, and you must do it soon.”

Exhaustion comes from half-heartedness. When our people are resistant to our heartfelt leadership, soon it is our own hearts that began to fail. We become cynical, disconnected, distancing from the very people we are called to shepherd into the new challenges.  Brother David also offers us the way forward, to overcome this exhaustion from half-heartedness, we “must do something heartfelt” and soon!

But when we are exhausted, how do we find the way back to wholeheartedness?  What can we start doing that will not only help us lead better in a turbulent world, but also help us get back some of the mojo we need for persevering into the challenges we are facing? Let me offer three steps: Get clear, draw closer, be curious.

Get clear about what is essential.  Counter exhaustion with essentialism.  I got that word from Greg McKeown’s book. Essentialism is about understanding that you really (really!) can’t do everything. The goal isn’t to “make it all work”, he says, but to acknowledge that being human means having limitations and having limitations means that we all make trade-offs.  And this includes organizations and churches too.  In adaptive leadership work, the first question to get clear on is what is essential to the organization: what are the clear core values, the true gift that we offer to the world, our real “value proposition” that makes a difference in people’s lives. In other words, get clear on what should never change and then adapt that in order to make a difference in the world.  Very often on podcasts and in interviews, I am asked: “So what do you think is essential for an organization to do today?  My answer: “To figure out what is essential for YOUR organization to do today.”

Think of it this way: “If we were completely clear about what is most important about our church or organization and could only address one problem to make our community a better place, what could WE (with our values, gifts, capacities, limitations) do? And then do everything in your power to work toward that.  Get really clear on what makes your organization unique, why you exist and the difference you want to make.  Be clear about what is essential and you will find yourself more wholehearted than you imagined.

Get closer to your people.  This is one of the most painful paradoxes of the pandemic.  We who are fueled by connection are unable to be physically close to each other. We can’t shake hands, hug, gather in groups around a white board generating great ideas and eating loads of bad pizza.  This kind of social distancing is profoundly wearing. We were created for community and we all (even introverts!) are at our best when we work, live, and play together.  And the only way to get through this season of social distancing is to refuse to emotionally distance. We may have to be physical apart, but humans are fueled by connections of hearts and minds. So, if you want to become more whole hearted, focus on developing deep understanding of and empathy with the people who are part of your team, your church, your organization. Empathy fuels connection and connection fuels the team.

Use Zoom meetings to check in relationally for a few minutes before any agenda item. Pick up the phone for 5 minute “watercooler chats” that will help you hear in another’s voice how they might really be coping. Ask people to send you emails with 1 thing to pray about, 1 question they wonder about and 1 wish they have for our communities.  Send out simple videos that remind your people that you really do think of them and care about them and invite them to stay emotionally connected to each other even while we are physically distanced.

Be curious about this moment. Let’s face it. Many of us ended up in leadership because we love casting a vision and building a plan to execute on that vision. For many of us the dreaming, scheming, and planning is as exciting as the goal itself. But what do we do when we can’t plan?  In a recent meeting with a group of leaders at Fuller Seminary, Andy Crouch spoke of the crisis in planning that is one of the unexpected challenges of this changing world. If we really don’t know what to expect over the next 1-3 years, how can we plan any event, any initiative, any goals at all? And some of us are exhausted at trying to perfectly plan and then seeing those plans scrapped by the ever-changing reports about infection rates and health protocols. So, we try to become experts at predicting the future so we can plan. But that is an exercise in futility.

Ed Friedman calls this moment “imaginative gridlock” and declares that what never works with imaginative gridlock is “trying harder” at the very problem that we can’t solve.  So, what can visionary leaders do if we can’t predict and plan? And what can we do to combat the imaginative gridlock and exhaustion that comes with mistaken predictions and misdirected plans?

Most leaders I know are deeply curious people.  They have what Ed Friedman called, “a spirit of adventure” that is motivated by learning and is willing to face the losses that an adventure inevitably brings.  So, counter the exhaustion of the unknown and the inability to make big plans with experimentation.

Conceptually stuck systems cannot become unstuck simply by trying harder. For a fundamental reorientation to occur, that spirit of adventure which optimizes serendipity and which enables new perceptions beyond the control of our thinking processes must happen first.  -Ed Friedman

Make a shift from planning to prototyping.  Prototyping is a word out of the ever changing, rapidly-iterating start-up world.  A prototype is not a mature product or service, but a simple, incomplete experiment that is about testing an idea or learning something new. Prototypes are focused on helping us learn and they create wholeheartedness by giving us little bursts of inspiration and discovery.

Prototypes are small, even safe, and often playful. Don’t launch a big initiative, don’t blow the whole budget, don’t hire a bunch of new staff (or fire beloved ones!). Just try some experiments that are expressions of your core values in new ways. We have seen lots of these during the pandemic. Online fundraisers for a cause?  Zoom happy hours? Mass choirs singing together through an app while everyone is safely in their own living rooms?  You bet. Fun and inspiring, too. The more curious, the more playful, the more of an adventurer and explorer you are, the more wholehearted you’ll become.

One of the key ways to overcome resistance in our people is to engage them in these very practices. Invite them into a clear, connected, adventure in experimentation.  Instead of trying to please everyone, manage the relational distance that is draining all of us, and putting the perfect plan in place (that will then just inspire people to argue and divide), invite your people into a spirit of adventure.

Yes, you may need rest (and please take it if you do!), but maybe what we all need is a bit more wholehearted adventure in this most unexpected moment.

Tod’s new ebook, Leadership for a Time of Pandemic: Practicing Resilience is available here. Tod Bolsinger and Mark Roberts will be discussing these themes and other practices in a free webinar: Resilience in a (Permanent) Crisis: Practices for Christian Leaders on July 1, 2020 at 9 AM PDT.

Register Here

Tod Bolsinger

Executive Director

Senior Fellow De Pree Center Associate Professor of Leadership Formation Fuller Theological Seminary Tod Bolsinger joined Fuller Seminary in 2014 as vice president for vocation and formation and he now serves as Senior Fellow at the D...

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