2013 Question #4

j0431512Question:  I am an  executive director of a mid-sized nonprofit organization. For the last couple of months, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. I dread going into the office in the morning. The other day, I found myself sitting in my car that was parked in my office parking lot trying to rustle up enough energy to go into the building.  I’m not sleeping well because my mind is racing with everything that I need to do.  I feel sad all the time now and struggle with bouts of crying.

Answer:  You are describing some serious symptoms of leadership burn-out.  Unfortunately, I see this the most often in leaders of small to mid-sized organizations who are hard-wired to be high-performers and do not have the right people in the right places doing the right things.

Organizational leadership has significant stress that can result in serious physical, emotional and mental consequences. j0178803

In my 20 years of executive coaching, I’ve observed that there are three stages of leadership stress decline that may ultimately result in stress related illnesses and resignation if something does not change.

FIRST STAGE: Overload 

Description: This stage generally is the “frog in the hot water” scenario. It can catch almost everyone off guard if they do not understand the indicators of organizational overload and make the right adjustments.

Organizational overload symptoms include:

  • Operational systems are not working like they used to.
  • Staff is complaining about not know what is going on within the organization.
  • Board decisions are taking too long.
  • Sometimes, the executive director feels like the board is starting to micromanage them.
  • Team meetings are dealing more with problem solving than moving the organization forward.
  • People keep doing things the same way but with a little more energy but it’s taking longer and longer to get things done.
  • Staff is beginning is complain more.
  • Important leadership time if being consumed with executive administration details. Thereby, putting strategic plans on hold.
  • When you leave the office to go home you feel like you took three steps forward and two steps backward. Nothing is getting done as efficiently as it could.  

Possible Causes:

  • the vision has out-grown the infrastructure;
  • the organization is moving through the “doing things right” stage
  • the organization needs additional staff skills or personnel added to the infrastructure;
  • job descriptions need updating; or
  • the organization needs a governing board rather than a managing board

Possible Solutions:  If you, as the leader of the nonprofit organization, relates to any of the above bullets, do not wait for things to get worse before doing something.

I have found that getting an assessment from an outside consultant who will help you identity where your organization is are at on the corporate life cycle and what systems need to be added or modified to meet the new demands is the most powerful and efficient solution for the “organizational overload” stage.

Unfortunately, may executive directors wait too long to get the help they need. Please don’t wait.

Organizational overload is a natural stage of organizational development.  

You just have to pay attention and make the right adjustments or your organization will not move forward.

I teach organizational structure all the time but it took one of my own business coaches to point out to me that our own business, Chase Advancement Inc, was slipping into the “organizational overload” stage.

I was so far “into the forest” of operations, that I was did not see the indicators like I should have.  

This is why outside consultants are so IMPORTANT.

They often see things that you do not.

Young Woman ThinkingSECOND STAGE: Compassion Fatigue 

Description:  Is a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion, interest and energy over-time. Compassion Fatigue symptoms are normal displays of chronic stress resulting from the work we do as leaders of nonprofit organizations.

Possible Causes:  Some mental health experts suggest that people who are attracted to leading care-giving nonprofit organizations were taught at an early age to care for the needs of others before caring for their own needs. People who have not developed and maintained healthy personal boundaries are prime candidates for compassion fatigue.   

Possible Solutions: My experience has been that most executive directors can move out of compassion fatigue with the right help. The key element in moving out of compassion fatigue is to implement authentic, ongoing self-care awareness and practices. See a professional counselor to help you sort out what has led to your compassion fatigue, what needs to be done to move yourself beyond it and how to not avoid it in the future . Often, good leadership coach/mentor is the best solution here. This should be someone who will not only listen to you but who will hold you accountable as well. 


Description: I am going to spend extra time on “burn-out because it is such a serious condition.

While I’ve seen many executive directors move out of compassion fatigue while remaining in their leadership position (as long as they got the right counseling/coaching and make the necessary changes); I’ve seen few executive directors of nonprofit organizations recover from burn-out without having to either significantly reduce their work hours or resign from their leadership position all together.

So, burn-out is a big deal. You want to avoid getting into this stage as much as possible.

88310186Burn-out often results in a three-way, mind-body shutdown:

1. emotional exhaustion,

2. physical fatigue, and

3. cognitive weariness.

Numbness and cynicism set in.

You may feel a sense of depersonalization and a lack of accomplishment. Withdrawal, detachment from work and relationships and symptoms of depression mark the advanced stages of the cycle.

As the last stage of stress, burnout often brings with it acute health problems.

Burnout can increase the risk of coronary heart disease in some people by 79%.

Burnout can also lead to upper respiratory infections, stroke, and depression.

It’s critical to resolve burnout before it triggers life-threatening risks.

Burnout is also a toxin for nonprofit organizations as well.

It guts productivity, fractures relationships.

Possible Causes: Mental health experts tell us that burn-out is the last act of the stress cycle. It  often develops from a condition of chronic stress. Emotional resources are stripped away until there is nothing left to counter the drain.

It’s my experience that the number one cause of burn-out
in nonprofits is “compassion fatigue” run a muck.

Possible Solutions: Get help from a professional counselor for your personal issues and a business consultant for your organization. 

Are you thinking that perhaps you are dealing with some burnout?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: