Preventing & Overcoming Leadership Burnout for CEOs

February 9, 2024 - Mark MacLeod

Preventing & Overcoming Leadership Burnout for CEOs

ceo burnout

Burnout is real. It is increasingly common in society at large. And is likely the default state for most CEOs.

This is tragic and I am on a mission to change it!

I was that person. I have been there. And I have seen what life is like on the other side of it.

Building a startup is a creative exercise. We cannot create when we are stressed.

In this article, I would like to share what I have learned about how to beat leadership burnout without sacrificing your ambition or impact.

Let’s get into it!

Identifying Leadership Burnout: Beyond Everyday Stress

We all experience stress to some level. That’s normal and fine.

Also, for CEOs building high-growth companies, stress is part of the job.

But, there is good stress and bad stress.

Good: This is short-term or acute stress. You experience it for short periods of time. Your heart rate goes up. Your breathing becomes more shallow.

On the plus side, your focus improves. You can’t keep this up for long. But it results in better short-term performance.

You might experience this before giving a speech or a fundraising pitch.

Bad: Then there is bad stress. This is the kind that lingers. Chronic stress that becomes part of your default state. Most often, this is short-term acute stress with no breaks or recovery periods.

If you find that you regularly experience:

Physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, and sleep disturbances.

Mental symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, depression, and difficulty concentrating.

Behavior changes such as over or under-eating, drug or alcohol misuse, and social withdrawal.

Then chances are high that you are experiencing chronic stress.

Left unchecked this leads to burnout. You just can’t do it anymore.

Chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: Heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.

It is serious. And it is everywhere.

Let’s look at how we beat it.

executive burnout

Signs of CEO Burnout: Early Detection is Key

While leadership burnout is in no way limited to CEOs, many of them experience it because of the scope of their roles.

As CEO, you are responsible for everything. Every part of the company. Every stakeholder.

Founder-CEOs especially find it hard to separate themselves from their company. They literally never stop thinking about it.

This is a problem.

As with any disease or illness, early detection is key.

Here are the typical signs of burnout:

Lower energy levels, to the point of exhaustion

Increased levels of unhappiness and anxiety

Increased cynicism regarding your job, company, and, in time, your life.

A general (and increasing) lack of motivation.

Inability to think clearly. You work hard but accomplish less.

Physical symptoms: headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, and trouble sleeping.

Assess yourself on these dimensions. Are you experiencing them? If so, it’s time for action. It’s time to prioritize YOU!

The Ripple Effect of Executive Burnout

Leadership burnout doesn’t just affect you. You bring it wherever you go.

High energy and a positive attitude are contagious. They are also self-fulfilling.

The opposite is also true. When you have no energy and no motivation, your team feels it. Company performance starts to decline.

We get what we tolerate in companies. If the leader is not performing, expect the performance of others to slide.

I have seen this firsthand. A CEO struggles to keep up with the growth of the company. She is overwhelmed.

It’s not her fault. No one is to blame. She is trying, but the results are not there.

Good is the enemy of great!

If the CEO is not performing at a “GREAT” level, no one else will.

That’s when the company begins a slow death spiral.

People join companies and leave bosses. And let’s face it, there are easier places to work than a high-growth startup.

Your best people are there because they believe in the vision and in you.

If they lose that belief, you might just lose them. The best people are always in demand and always a flight risk.

Embracing Self-Care for Leaders as Burnout Prevention

I only coach startup CEOs. Most of my clients are dudes.

When I bring up “self-care” to them, they cringe.

Here’s the deal:

Every other creature on the planet lives in accordance with nature.

They are not above it. They instinctively know when to push and to rest.

A huge part of self-care is making room for our instinct to speak to us.

We are so in our heads. We are bombarded.

We go from meeting to meeting. We pound emails and Slack messages.

We have no boundaries. We are reachable anytime.

This is NOT living in accordance with nature.

Recovering from Leadership Fatigue: Steps to Build Resilience

“Disease” is a distance from ease. Our first step in recovering from burnout is to return to ease. To return to our natural state.

Here is how I did it and do it:

Physical exercise: I do CrossFit 4 times per week. This is just what works for me. You don’t have to do it.

The key is to move to the point of sweat regularly. Sweat removes toxins.

Also, resistance training is important. Especially as we age. We start to lose muscle and bone mass beyond 35 years old.

Prioritize sleep: I aim to get at least 7 hours per night. I monitor quantity and quality (which I assess as the amount of ‘deep sleep’ I get).

Practice good sleep hygiene:  We are supposed to sleep for 1/3 of our lifespan. This tells me that sleep is important.

Here is what good sleep hygiene means for me:

Going to sleep at the same time each night in a bedroom that is completely dark.

Getting off screens at least one hour before bed.

Not eating a heavy dinner. Eating at least 3 hours before bed.

No caffeine in the afternoon or later.

Limit alcohol intake.

Eat real, whole foods: Again going back to us being part of nature and not above it. We are meant to eat foods that exist in the natural world.

Fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, animal proteins (in small quantities).

This means typically shopping at the edge of the grocery store. Not in the middle. No cans. Avoid processed foods.

It’s more expensive, I know. But you decide on what is important. Our cells are made from what we eat.

Create boundaries: Work expands to fill all available time. If you don’t create boundaries, work will take over everything. 

The best way to create boundaries around work is to have clear goals for each day. When you accomplish them you feel less guilty about stopping work. 

Without this, the work never ends.

Have fun! We are not machines. Not robots. What’s the point of all this if we don’t have fun?

Make time for things that have no purpose other than bringing you joy!

I practice yoga and meditate daily. I run a record label and produce music. I get out in nature. I read. These are the things that feed me.

Yes, you can have it all.

As we wrap up here, I know what you’re thinking: It’s easy for me. I don’t run a company. I work for myself.

I practiced what I preach here even when I ran my investment bank.

I was working six deals at a time and still going to CrossFit Monday – Friday.

The key to doing this is changing your elevation: Working ON your business, not IN it.

If you do this, you will have plenty of time and energy to prioritize self-care.

This creates a virtuous cycle. You have more passion and energy. More mental clarity. More drive. This enables you to achieve more. Making you more fulfilled.

Win-win.

self care for leaders

Coaching to Help Overcome & Prevent Leadership Burnout

Burnout is real, harmful, and potentially fatal.

If you are experiencing the physical or mental symptoms I mentioned it is time for action.

You are more important than your business!

Happy, healthy humans build bigger, better companies!

You will build a bigger company if you make yourself a priority. And you will be happier.

I am passionate about this. If you struggle trying to build your company without burning out, let’s chat and figure out leadership burnout solutions that work for your business and lifestyle. 

I will have more offerings around burnout coming soon.

Your journey is never done

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    If you’re curious about my coaching and deal work you can learn more here.

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