Posted by: chrismaser | May 10, 2010


It is Corey’s thesis in psychotherapy1 and mine in leadership that the single, most important instrument we have to work with is ourselves, what we are and what we progressively become as we grow. The most powerful technique we have at our disposal is our ability to model aliveness, authenticity, compassion, and dispassion. And because leadership is about helping others to fulfill their potentialities, it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves so we are able to continue functioning as servant leaders from our own aliveness. To accomplish this, we must consciously work to deal with those factors that threaten to drain our life’s essence from us and render us helpless. One of these lethal factors is “burnout.”

People who suffer from burnout feel tired, drained, and without enthusiasm, where once they were idealistic and going to make their mark by changing the world for the better. Now, they no longer care; their ideals appear to have lost their meaning. They feel like slaves instead of leaders because what they have to offer seems neither wanted nor accepted, which leaves them feeling unappreciated, unrecognized, and unimportant. They therefore go through the motions of their jobs with all the aliveness and zest of a robot.

Burnout steals your sense of being grounded in the everyday world, where you can see some measure of concreteness in the results of your efforts. People often begin to feel oppressed and thus begin to fight the very “system”—now an enemy—they were going to change for the better. But the more they actively resist the system, the more the system resists their changing it, which, in their minds, stifles any sense of personal initiative.

Because a person at this point in the cycle of burnout has lost sight of both their vision toward which to build and of dispassion, burnout begins to feed off itself. When this happens, the person suffering from burnout feels increasingly isolated and in despair, the latter of which further increases the sense of isolation, and so on in a seemingly never-ending self-reinforcing feedback loop. Such a downward spiral effectively prevents an individual from reaching out to others for help and support.

Because burnout can rob a leader of the vitality they need personally and professionally, it is critical to examine some of its causes, possible remedies, and ways of prevention. Here again, I acknowledge Corey for his excellent and concise listing of some of the causes, remedies, and preventions of burnout, which I have adapted and added to.


Recognizing the causes of burnout can in itself be a step in its remedy. A few of the causes of burnout among leaders are:

1. Caring for a cause and being more invested in it than the other people, so that you have a continual sense of needing to pull the others along, as opposed to simply guiding them

2. Giving a great deal of personal time, ideas, and energy and getting little or nothing in return by way of appreciation or other positive and meaningful responses

3. Always trying to stop things from happening, such as cutting forests, grazing public lands with livestock, building a particular bridge or road, tearing down a historic building, and so on

4. Being under constant pressure to produce, perform, and meet timelines, many of which are both personally meaningless and unrealistic

5. Working with a difficult population (those who resist any kind of change—“Whatever it is, I’m against it”), unless it is somehow seen as self-serving, as well as others who are simply involuntary participants in changing times within their own community, state, or nation and therefore change at glacial speed, even in the face of a crisis, environmental or other

6. Disillusionment when your ideals of service come up against greed, apathy, or even corruption

7. Inability to deal with the calumny and criticism that inevitable come with leadership

8. Unresolved personal conflicts beyond the responsibility of leadership, such as marital problems, chronic health problems, financial problems, and so on.2


Learning ways in which to care for ourselves beyond recognizing burnout as an initial problem is critical for leaders who truly want to serve. My own experience, in concurrence with that of Corey, leads me to think that accepting personal responsibility for your thoughts, motives, and actions is one of the most critical factors is remedying burnout.

The remedy for burnout is within—not without. It’s examining the self-centeredness or other-centeredness of your own agenda: Do I really want to serve as an unconditional way of extending love, or am I really trading my service for approbation as a way to find personal fulfillment?

To reverse the negative cycle of burnout (which is projecting blame for your sense of failure and the feelings it engenders onto whatever seems handy and/or sounds good outside of yourself), you must turn the searchlight inward. You must examine, with direct honesty, the root causes of your negative feelings and accept that they come from within, not without. Therefore, the cure must also be within.

Until you understand and accept that both the cause and the cure are within, you are not only surrendering personal power to forces outside of yourself but also acting out the role of a helpless victim, the behavioral gateway to cynicism. Although there are obstacles to leadership, which make if difficult to function as you might wish, there are ways of learning to keep your own counsel and to act out of personal integrity and meaning.

To do this, however, you must not blame the external system for the dysfunction internal to yourself. And where things within the external system need fixing, you can begin working on them one at a time with diligence and persistence, along with a healthy dose of patience and dispassion.3


Learning to look within ourselves to determine what choices we have, what choices we are making or not making to keep ourselves feeling alive, and why we are or are not making them can go a long way in preventing burnout. There are also other ways to prevent burnout, most of which include assuming the responsibility of consciously, actively nourishing ourselves:

1. Making sure you have a clear, exciting, believable, attainable vision toward which to lead

2.Taking responsibility for your own motives, thoughts, and actions and leaving to others the responsibility for theirs

3. Finding interests in addition to the role of leader

4. Taking initiative

5. Attending to your own health through adequate sleep, relaxation, an exercise program, proper diet, and time for reflection or meditation

6. Cultivating nourishing people with whom you can find mutual sharing of love, support, ideas, humor, and so on

7. Learning how to ask for what you want, though not expecting to always get it, and learning how to accept not getting what you asked for

8. Learning how to grow inside so that you are clearly focused, other-centered, and well grounded spiritually as a leader, while being both dispassionate and detached from the outcome of your leadership, which renders external recognition unimportant to the validation of your accomplishments

9. Learning to play and honor the child within you by freely giving expression to it

10. Learning to be honestly in touch with your emotions, including pain and tears when necessary

11. Evaluating whether the project you are working on is still worth your time and commitment or whether it is necessary in terms of personal growth to move on to other challenges

12. Taking the initiative to form a support group with colleagues to openly share feelings and find better ways of approaching difficult situations, which inevitably arise as a condition of leadership

13. Finding a mentor with whom to debrief and from whom to glean counsel4

The above list is not intended to be exhaustive but only to provide some insight into keeping yourself alive and healthy while allowing you to accept the trials and enjoy the fruits of leadership by keeping an exclusive, personal scorecard of your own success or failure. If you remain true to your ideals and retain a healthy zest for living, you will continue to grow and change and thus find life to be exciting and ever new.

To remain personally and professionally alive, therefore, you must periodically evaluate the direction in which you find yourself traveling and determine if you are in fact living in the way you really want—true to your beliefs. If, perchance, you are not living according to your true beliefs, then you must decide what changes are necessary to fulfill truth in your life and find the courage to risk acting, rather than simply waiting for circumstances to force your hand.

By being well grounded spiritually and in tune with yourself, you will find the experience of life to be one of harmony, where you have the unmistakable feeling of personal power, which is the power of self-control and self-mastery. This kind of power allows you to integrate the experiences of life, including your feelings and spirituality, with your experiences as a leader in such away that you have empathy and compassion for your constituency without being captured by them. Such a personal synthesis provides a solid, insightful foundation for true servant leadership—something sorely needed in today’s governments the world over. Having said this, let’s examine some ways in which a government (any government) can foster exemplary leadership from within.

Series on Leadership Challenges:

Return to the First Set of Posts

• Avoiding Self-Deception

• Over-Investment In Followers

• The Value Of Humor

• Coping With Someone You Dislike

• Imagine Yourself As Different People

• Inspiring Performance

• Nurturing Creativity

• Making Do With What You Have

• Establishing Realistic Objectives

• The Need For Urgency

• Give Counsel, Not Advice

• The Questions We Ask

• Leadership Within Organizations


  1. The foregoing discussion is based in part on the most excellent book by Gerald Corey. Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (3rd ed.). Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., Monterey, CA. (1986).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.

Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.

Protected by Copyscape Web Copyright Protection

This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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