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Leading on Empty

Leading on Empty

It came to a head while I was out on a run one evening during a trip to California. One minute I was jogging along on the sidewalk, and the next minute I was sitting on the curb, sobbing uncontrollably, and I didn’t have a clue what was happening to me. Leading on empty will drain more than your energy. It will drain your soul.

 Somehow, I made it through the speaking engagement I had that night and limped home to Hawaii. Back home again, my situation seemed to go from bad to worse. I began developing physical symptoms: erratic heartbeats, difficulty breathing, insomnia.

New fears began to mushroom. Remembering that my father had passed away from heart disease and high blood pressure, I began wondering if that was to be my fate as well.

It’s a weariness, a fatigue that stalks you from a distance, and like a mountain lion, it pounces on you when you least expect it. Burnout. No, it didn’t happen because of sin or any violation of the basic principles of health. It happened because I’m passionate and because I’m human.

But, coming to grips with the fact that we are not bulletproof anymore can be an eye-opening discovery. Leadership confidence, which was once a badge of honor, now must be filtered by honest evaluation, age and humility.

After experiencing a season of burnout, and an even longer season of recuperation, I find I’m profoundly different now. I wish I could have been able to discern the early warning signs, but I didn’t. Leaders seldom do. They, who were once mobilized by a vision, are now captured by it. What once propelled them, now, will not let them go. But I learned some profound lessons along the way.

Fatigue Parameters

I have the same amount of energy as I did before, but I don’t have the same longevity as I did. I used to be able to go a year or more without a break before I fatigued. My error was not that I fatigued at three months … but that I’d keep running for another two before I took a break. I had violated an invisible parameter of fatigue. For two months, I would run on empty. I look back on the decisions made during those two months, and the choice of words, and the options I had taken were less than acceptable. I gave quick answers but not insightful ones. I would be present but not necessarily engaged.

Recharge Daily

Solomon wrote, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23, NAS). The springs of life! The headwaters of the

soul. You can’t refresh those springs from the outside in. Only God, the Creator and Sustainer of life, can release those vital energies from deep within the human spirit. There He evaluates, renews and recharges. It must begin at the headwaters of our souls.

Each morning I intentionally make time to do my devotions. It is an hour where I sit at His feet, read a certain amount of passages and journal. It is a time where God refreshes my soul and recalibrates anything that is out of kilter. No, it is not a time where I study the Bible. It is a time where I let it study me—a time to scrub my heart, my motives and my soul.

Plan Rests First

Composers know the importance of scoring appropriate rests into each piece. The long notes make an otherwise rough piece of music, smooth. In Jacob the Baker, Noah benShea writes, “It’s the space between the notes that makes the music.”

I have learned the importance of this truth in my life song. I must write in the rests before the conductor collapses from the continuous staccatos, detached notes incessantly fired in rapid succession. I need longer notes. I needed more legatos … with feeling. But finding those legatos doesn’t always come easily.

I used to wait until there was a break in the action to take a break. Not anymore. I sit with my calendar and plan first, not last, the breaks I will need.

I remember training for a long distance race. My coach instructed me to hydrate at certain time intervals. “Every 15 minutes,” he told me, “you drink six ounces of water. Keep an eye on your watch so you don’t violate your hydration limits.”

“But, coach, what if I’m not thirsty?”

Listen to me” he said with a firmer tone. “If you wait to take a drink until you’re thirsty, it’s too late. Your body is already into dehydration. You can’t afford that.”

Schedule rests in before your calendar fills up. Rest is not an afterthought—it has to be a primary responsibility. It brings a rhythm back to life and a cadence that makes life sustainable. If you are tired, your soul gets weary. And if your soul gets weary, you’ve depleted more than you can afford.

Leading on empty will drain more than your energy. It will drain your soul. But with a few changes, you won’t find yourself crying on the curb in the middle of nowhere. Instead, you will find a symphony of new discoveries, intersected with long legatos, which makes for beautiful music.

 This article originally appeared in Issue 04 of Neue Quarterly

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