Burned Out Engines of High-Performance Leaders

November 27, 2019
Author: Tyran Saffold Jr

We’ve all seen it at some point. A car stuck on the side of the road as its driver waits for help to arrive. The vehicle has been pushed to the point of exhaustion as the engine overheats.

Like an overheated car, some high-performance leaders are at risk of burning out.

Executive Exhaustion Can be Catastrophic to the Engine of Businesses

Engine ‘Types’ at Risk of Burnout

“High-functioning people actually are able to power through,” says Dr. Srini Pillay, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “But they do eventually crash.”

The quickest way to reach burnout is through over-engagement. The belief that the company can’t operate without its leader can spark a constant need to overwork and be involved in every project.

According to a study of senior managers and C-suite executives, conducted by Dr. Pillay, about half of those surveyed thought the CEO of their organization was burned out. From there, 75 percent said their senior managers were burned out. Work overload was one of the main suspected causes of burnout.

“These people tend to be highly responsible individuals who fundamentally believe that they’re not only important to others but also indispensable,” says John Davis, a Harvard Business School of Management professor. “They lack good thermostats for gauging their levels of fatigue.”

Things like lack of sleep, poor diet and untreated stress can all compound existing health issues. At the risk of overheating or burning out, it may be time for executives to take their foot off the gas and let their engines cool for a few days.

As an executive, it may be hard to pull away from the business. However, taking a pit stop affords others on the team an opportunity to step up and maintain productivity for the company. If a company cannot operate without the leader around, even for short stints, then the wrong people are on the team.

The Check Engine Light

Steve Tappin, CEO coach and author of 'The Secrets of CEOs' series, along with his colleague, a trained neuroscientist, performed neurological tests on CEOs. They found that most CEOs worked too many hours, consistently felt stressed and suffered from severe fatigue.

As it turns out, a recent study by the Harvard Business Review provides even more evidence. The report revealed that CEOs worked an average of 9.7 hours per weekday, 3.9 hours each weekend day and 2.4 hours per day while on vacation. In total, they worked an average of 62.5 hours per week.

Many executives tend to drive their companies with their foot on the gas, rarely pulling over for a pit stop. But, just as the smoke is an indicator of an underlying engine issue, there are ways to identify a burned-out executive:

  • Increased frustration
  • Easily angered
  • Apathy
  • Withdrawal

“HR departments usually assume, wrongly, that CEOs and other senior executives ‘have it together’,” says Kathleen Mahieu, head of the behavioral-health consulting practice at Aon Hewitt.

Proper Maintenance

“There are steps in the burnout journey which executives need to understand, including stress, emotional withdrawal, mental fatigue and ultimately spiritual failure—which is also identified as depression. They need to have the self-awareness to know when they are not traveling so well,” explains Stuart Taylor, CEO of Springfox. His company helps other organizations combat employee and executive burnout.

Regardless of your rank in an organization and level of employment, we all need to recharge at some time or another. A car can only drive so long before proper maintenance. The same is true for our bodies and minds. Let’s avoid a burnout or breakdown. Take time to refresh, rejuvenate and reignite. Doing so will encourage your employees to do the same.