Leader Burnout Alert – Personal Story

Sometimes leaders know burnout is coming. Sometimes they know the warning signs. But sometimes, they don’t. In Episode 134 of the Lead From Anywhere podcast, I shared a personal story about something I went through recently that led me to resigning abruptly from a leadership role.

Leader Burnout Alert (Personal Story) – Listen Now!

My Leader Burnout Experience

Let’s rewind a little bit back to July 2021. For seven years, I have volunteered for a local organization, and for the past four years, I’ve been the Chairperson of the board. This organization puts on a huge street festival every year that about 150,000 people attend. Because it is an open street festival, there are no gates or checkpoints for entry. We had to cancel the 2020 festival for obvious reasons, but we thought we were good to go for 2021.

In mid-July, the wheels started falling off. The Delta variant was gaining traction. We had a 12% positivity rate in our area. Hospitals were filling up, and here we were, trying to decide whether or not to have an event where masking and checking vaccine status would have been nearly impossible for us to enforce. I’m not sharing all of this to get political, but I do believe the way out of this nightmare of Covid is through vaccination and masking. You can imagine, as a leader of this organization, I was torn. I wanted to have the festival, and my team had worked so hard on it all year long, but I knew that we needed to cancel it.

As the month of July went on, I was having what seemed like endless phone calls with board members, sponsors, and other stakeholders of this event. We also sought out medical guidance from local health departments and hospitals. We hoped someone else would make the decision for us, but it became very clear that wasn’t going to be the case. I was stressed, to say the least. I wasn’t sleeping well, wasn’t eating well, wasn’t exercising. I couldn’t focus on my actual day job. Oh, I forgot to mention this was a volunteer position.

The first week of August, I started having some chest pains. I thought it was heartburn, honestly, which made sense with my diet. But then I had a really hard conversation with another person on my leadership team, which was followed-up with an even harder-to-receive text message late that same evening. I woke up the next morning with several heart-attack symptoms women tend to have – sweating, nausea, dizziness, chest pain, and my blood pressure was quite elevated. So, I went to the Emergency Room. After 8 hours there, and about 10 tests, the cardiologist told me my heart was in “exceptional condition.” So then we started talking about what had happened: I had a panic attack.

I’ve never had one before, so I really thought I was having a heart attack. I have, of course, had anxiety and stress in the past, but nothing like this. Nothing I didn’t deal with and move on. The cardiologist said to me, “Even though you’re trying to do all of this good work for this volunteer organization, I would highly suggest you resign from this role and non-profit immediately.” After that, I had several follow-ups where my primary care physician and another medical professional, and both said the same thing – I needed to resign.

So guess what I did – I resigned, abruptly. I gave the group less than a week’s notice. And let me tell you, that sucked. It sucked because I have several friends on the board who I felt like I was leaving behind. It sucked because I had so many things I wanted to do for the organization that would make it better. But I just couldn’t stay. If I have to choose between my health and really anything else, I’m going to choose my health.

Leader Burnout Can Happen

Burnout is serious, and it can be life-threatening. I was so stressed that I could have had a heart attack. In fact, my cardiologist reminded me that a panic attack is a warning sign that I had to listen to.

As a leader, how do you deal with this, or better yet, avoid it altogether? First and foremost, know your burnout warning signs. All of mine were there – I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t remembering conversations with my wife, I was drinking more, I couldn’t focus – honestly, this stress was dominating my life. But for some reason, I didn’t pay attention to any of my warning signs. If there is a silver lining in all of this, I was able to identify another warning sign that I’m approaching burnout. I say, “I just need to get through (fill in the blank),” A LOT when I’m heading towards burnout. I just have to get past “that thing.” In this experience, I realized that self-talk might be my biggest red flag for when things are approaching a danger zone.

Once you recognize you’re approaching the danger zone, what comes next? You have to put some space between yourself and the thing that’s causing the stress. Sometimes you just need a break. But for me, I knew I needed to resign from the Chairperson role AND the organization’s board of directors, almost immediately. I didn’t see it getting better for me, and my health was at stake. I also took an impromptu vacation to get some additional space.

I can now report, a few months after all of this happened, I’m feeling better. I’m sleeping better. I’m more focused on my actual day job. I’m more present in my life. And my friends who are still in the organization are still my friends. A couple of them actually told me they were proud of me for making that decision, to resign, to take care of myself. Everything worked out in the end.

Avoid Leader Burnout

I shared this story with you because you’re also a leader. You are a business owner. You have to make hard decisions from time to time. You almost always have an underlying current of stress going on about something. I get it – I’m that way, too. I usually have it in check, but I really didn’t have it in check at that time.

I don’t want you to get to the point of a panic attack and a trip the emergency room…or worse. So please keep your stress in check, know your burnout signs and triggers, and also have a plan to address those things before you get completely burned out.