Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Exhausted Leader

From time to time I hear stories of people who have worked themselves to the point of utter exhaustion.  These are often people who work very hard at their jobs, who invest more than 100% every day, who go home at night only to sleep fitfully, and return the next day to do it all over again.  This cycle of work-sleep-work seems never ending, and eventually takes its toll on the body and mind.

This is not to say that everyone experiences this cycle.  There are those who approach each day as a new challenge, who are energized by the opportunities every morning brings, and who are able to maintain a balance between work and home.

So, what is the difference between these two sets of people?  Why would one set reach exhaustion, while others feel excited and energized by the same work?

Poet, author and lecturer, David Whyte offers one possible answer in his book Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (P 113 - 138).

Early in his career Whyte found himself running a nonprofit he had founded.  The organization was devoted to a cause that was near and dear to his heart.  However, the running of the business was pushing aside the time to stay connected with the cause, or to devote himself to his real love, poetry.  He was busy - busy running a business that, although successful, gave him no time to focus on his true interests.

In the midst of his "busyness" he found that his energy was gone; he was exhausted.  He certainly cared about the nonprofit and its educational goals, but for some reason he found that he had lost his ability to keep up the pace.

One late evening, while sitting in his home sharing a bottle of wine with a close friend and adviser (Brother David), he decided to seek his friend's help in understanding his condition.  Whyte said,  "Brother David, tell me about exhaustion."  A moment passed between the two while Brother David considered the request.  Then Brother David replied: "You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?"

Whyte was a bit surprised by this response, and after giving this some thought asked, "What is it, then?"

To which Brother David answered, "The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.  You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life.  You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while.  You need something to which you can give your full powers.  You know what that is; I don't have to tell you." (P. 132-133)

This brief exchange between David Whyte and Brother David reaches out to those who are experiencing exhaustion and begs them to examine whether their work is aligned with their true power and interests, or if it fits the place they have reached in their life.  Being half present at work is an exhausting experience.  And, as Brother David said, "being half here will kill you."

Also, Brother David's point was that to regain the energy and devotion to his work, Whyte needed to match his work with something to which he could give his "full powers", or his full devotion. 

In many cases, we know when we are in a job or position that does not match our power.  We can feel the dissonance, the discord. We also have a feeling for where our power and interests lie.  What is called for is the courage and creativity to seek changes that lead us to this new reality.

The courage needed to make these changes cannot be over stated.  Taking steps to leave one position in favor of another, to change careers, to pursue your passion requires an inner commitment and strength.  It invites risks.  And, it also offers rewards.  Only you can assess the value of making the shift to work that matches your power.

But remember, exhaustion may be a sign; a sign that you are "half here", and "being half here will kill you."

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A final note on Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity:
I highly recommend this book to anyone who finds themselves pondering the greater meaning of the human journey through life.  Whyte is an insightful and inspiring writer who touches the heart and mind in deeply meaningful ways.  The examination of work as a pilgrimage of identity will ring true to anyone who has ever wondered about their chosen profession, or considered a leap of faith into another line of work.