Inoculate Yourself Against Leadership Burnout

By Melissa Karz
Partner, Next Step Partners

Burnout is typically thought of as a problem of overwork. You work too hard, too long and the pressure fries you. But in my experience working with executives, this common perception misses the mark.

More often than not, the roots of burnout lie not in how much we’re working, but in why we’re working.

Avoiding burnout is less about cutting back hours or scheduling beach vacations and more about defining what you most want out of your life and aligning your personal and professional experiences around this understanding.

In this article, I’ll share different cues that alert you that it’s time to take an inventory of your values and offer some tools to shift your mindset and reboot the way you work. Although it can sometimes feel risky, making small choices can be both game and life changing.

The Start of Burnout

Every executive is vulnerable to burnout. It starts with a whispering doubt: “Is this what I really want to be doing with my time?” High achieving people have mastered what it takes to climb the ladder, but in the process they often lose touch with what they most deeply and uniquely want.Burnout is a natural response to putting sustained effort into things that conflict or interfere with the values that give our lives meaning.

Have You Lost Touch with What’s Most Important to You?

Many leaders get to the top by being master jugglers. They’ve learned how to keep all the balls in the air and manage a diverse range of competing interests, expectations and needs.

They are often externally focused: “What does my team need to succeed? How do I influence the other leaders in my company to support my initiatives? What do our customers want? Where can I make the biggest impact?

All this external input can make it difficult to hear our inner voice. We find ourselves reacting to external pressures and doing things that are not in alignment with what we really want and need—both personally and professionally.

For example, you may be the kind of person who needs to create things to feel alive, but you spend your days in meetings and evenings unwinding in front of the TV. Or perhaps connecting with your children is vitally important to you, but you’re only involved in the nightly bedtime routine and not any of the day-to-day trials and tribulations. Or maybe you’ve been hired to develop a new strategic direction for the company, but can’t seem to get out of the weeds.

When we prioritize things that conflict with what we most value, there’s always a short term payoff—the job gets done, the fire is extinguished, the big win is scored—but this kind of misalignment is unsustainable over the long term. And likewise, when we are working in alignment with our deepest values, we actually work better, more efficiently and happier.

What Do You Really Want?

In our work coaching hundreds of leaders, we have discovered the need for leaders to periodically go through the introspective, reflective process of rebooting one’s energy, passion and commitment to work in order to achieve immediate and long-term goals as well as to inspire those around them.

It’s never too late to assess how you’re working and what gives you satisfaction. Share on X

It’s never too late to reassess how you are working, what you are spending time on and why you may have strayed from the aspects of your job that provide meaning and satisfaction. Furthermore, it is necessary to do so in order to reawaken the passion that initially drove you to this leadership role and keep you engaged and effective.

Warren Bennis talks about the importance of leaders creating reflective structures to stay in touch with what is most important to them. It’s important to set aside time and space for self-examination, whether a few hours a week, a day a month or a week every year.

10 Core Values

The key place to start is to identify your top ten values. These are the qualities that you most want in your life, such as creativity, achievement, connection, collaboration, authenticity, knowledge, security and family/relationships. (Note that ethics or morals are something different; they are codes of behavior such as “work hard”, “play nice” or “be honest.”)

The mix of values that are most important to you is very personal and individual. Even people close to you will rarely match perfectly. Even when they share the same value, they may define it differently. Values can also shift and change over time. For example, early in your career, achievement may be a priority while later in life family may take precedence.

How we express our values may also change over time. The value of adventure might be expressed by rock climbing and bungee jumping when one is younger, but at a later stage in life this same value of adventure may be expressed through world travel.

Look for Misalignment

Once you have identified your core values, it’s important to evaluate how much these values are being expressed in your work and personal life. If you are spending very little time on things that matter and are meaningful to you, it’s not hard to see how your motivation, energy, health and productivity will suffer.

Conversely, the more you are able to incorporate your core values into your life and work, the more fulfilled and effective you’ll be. Review how you are spending your time and find ways to increase the expression of your values.

If you are person who places a high value on creativity, working long hours to launch a product that you designed can be immensely satisfying. But working long hours managing others might be draining. If you are this kind of person, it’s going to be vitally important for you to work creativity into your life.

An Example: Creativity as a Value

One of my clients who valued creativity highly focused on finding more ways to build innovative and big picture thinking into his day. Because he found himself overly mired in the important and urgent work, he discovered that by scheduling regular daily and weekly time in his calendar to focus on creative exploration, and often included others in his brainstorming sessions, he began to more effectively honor this value at work.

Defining what a value means to you is important because creativity, for instance, could mean two completely different things to two different people. For some leaders, creativity is defined by innovative thinking at work. Other leaders who value creativity might get their “juice” outside of work through artistic pursuits such as cooking, writing or photography.

More Examples: Health as a Value

One of my clients realized that she strongly valued health, but wasn’t finding time to work out. She arranged for a car service to drive her to work several days a week and had it drop her off two miles from the office so that she could walk the rest of the way. While in the car, she Facetimed with her children, which addressed another one of her key values—connection with family.

Another of my clients who had top values of health and community was able to short-circuit her impending burnout by joining a social running club. This also addressed another of her key values: balance. She was regularly working until 9pm at night. She was new to town and struggling to find the time and energy to forge new relationships.

Leadership Values Inventory

The trick to a sustainable leadership career is to align your true values with how you are spending your time both at work and in your life beyond. It takes conscious evaluation and effort. The following model offers simple steps that you can use to clarify your values and make small changes that can have a big effect. We’ve used this process to great success with many executives.

1 | Inventory Your Values

When coaching executives, I’ll work together with clients to identify the top ten key values that are most important to them. It can take some probing and an outside perspective to separate what are your true, deeply held values vs. what you believe you should value, but if you’d like to take a crack at it on your own, we are offering the Values Section of Next Step Partners’ highly acclaimed Career Handbook for Working Professionals as a free download.

Download the Career Handbook | Free VALUES Chapter

Initially developed to support our own Career Transition coaching engagements, this comprehensive guide has become standard-issue at a variety of top MBA programs for their alumni and executive programs, including Harvard Business School, Stanford Business School, the Haas School of Business and the Wharton School.

The VALUES section of our Career Handbook includes several exercises designed to help you define and clarify your values.

2 | Evaluate Misalignments

Now review what your work-life looks like today and ask yourself:

  • To what extent am I energized by my work (on a scale of 1 to 10)?
  • How engaged am I in my work (on a scale of 1 to 10)?
  • What values/priorities are not getting met?
  • What percentage of the time am I using my top talents and strengths at work to add the most value to the organization?
  • How is my team feeling about its leader?

These questions can serve as a benchmark and are worth revisiting on a monthly or quarterly basis.

3 | Craft Small Experiments

You can’t have everything you want. But as Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer says, “You can have the things that really matter to you.

Once you understand what values matter to you most, make a list of small things you can do to better accommodate them. For example, if you value family/relationships you might consider scheduling dinner dates with the family or setting aside Saturday mornings for a particular activity that you enjoy together.

Take control, be proactive and realize you have choices. Ask yourself, “What are my options, what’s in my control?” Dip your toe in the water. Craft some small experiments and see what results you get. If the first one goes well, craft another one!

4 | Test Your Assumptions

Try delegating some things you’ve always thought you had to do yourself. If there are activities that are not in alignment with your internal priorities and your highest value work for the organization, try letting them go.


Align with Your True Values and Reboot Your Leadership

In addition to helping clients reboot their leadership though a values inventory, we also draw upon the Immunity to Change process to help our clients test and ultimately shift their assumptions. As a result, they learn how to incorporate more of their highest values in the workplace so they can feel happy, fulfilled and engaged.

It’s pretty difficult to do this on your own, but a skilled coach can help clear the way.



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