Center of the fire: Thoughts on renewal and burnout

“What is to give light must endure burning.” ~ Victor Frankl

The constant pressure of leadership can easily create a lot of stress and even the greatest leader risks burnout. Our natural physiological response to any kind of stress is a fight, flight, freeze approach. That works well for sheer survival in life-death situations, but it isn't really designed for the prolonged stress in leadership. (Forgive me for over-simplifying.)

So...we can grab quick fixes for the pain of burnout. Better time management, more sleep, a walk, five minutes of mindfulness, sure. But these are bandaids. Because what is really going on is that during extended stress we tend to pull away from the very space inside us that has been giving us our fuel and renewal all along, the quiet center of our fire. The yearning for this place can become excruciating. Our task and invitation is to find our way back. 

When we burn out, we become less luminous, misaligned. Disconnected. Isolated. Separated, within and without. The flip-side? The natural rhythms of our energy know how to dance with the fire. They haven't forgotten. We can learn to reconnect, reunite, and create a map into renewal. 

Credit: Anna Popović |

Credit: Anna Popović |

In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz illustrate how high performing leaders can learn from the world’s top athletes. Top athletes are energy masters - physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. When the game is on, they give their all. Nothing else matters. They are in. They can do so because in between games they replenish their energies with equal fervor. Top athletes live the experience of stressing and de-stressing as science and art. Read, for example, how Michael Phelps has been achieving excellence. But us non-athletes seem to forget that we can give similar intentional attention to our inputs and outputs. We can cultivate new skills and habits through diet and exercise, emotional agility, training the mind, practices supportive of spiritual reflection.

Can you see the cultivation of new habits as energy adjusting rituals - small, regularly reenacted steps to give yourself to your inner light? Sometimes, there is a sacredness in ritual that takes the effort out...

Yet equally important is to ask: How strong is the bond between my day to day activities and that inner sacred space. Is there any meaning that glues it all together? We need a connection as strong as an umbilical cord, a connection based on deeply held values. Burnout will occur if we don’t have a positive purpose, a purpose that fulfills intrinsically, independent of, say, money or fame, a purpose that’s bigger than us. Who are you at your best? What is it that you want your children to learn most about living and life? And when you are dying, what might be your biggest regret if you don’t tend to it now? 

Something else: Great leadership requires a tremendous amount of giving and generosity. But we slip from giving to giving up unless we know how to receive. We are not taught how to receive. Not really. Some of us feel we aren’t worthy of gifts. Or nourishment. Receiving makes us feel vulnerable, selfish, guilty. We don’t like to owe anyone. Although we may crave nurturing, we have learned to excel in denying ourselves. We are stingy toward our own hearts.

“If we give without the capacity to receive, we become self-sacrificing,” writes Tererai Trent in The Awakened Woman. Self sacrifice serves no one. So do we dare to learn how to receive? Dare we let in the love and belonging that we crave? We live in an infinitely generous universe. Colleagues, strangers, friends, family share their energy. A smile on the street, someone letting me go ahead in line, the many beings involved in any product, skill, or strength I enjoy: We stand on the shoulders of others. Rhythms of entwined energy live in our cells. Nothing else needs to happen but receiving. It’s from this full receiving that full giving flows. Pause, breathe, receive. Really, all it takes is remembering the interdependence of who we are. 

In Resonant Leadership, authors Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee refer to our dance with the fire as resonance: “We have found that leaders who sustain their resonance understand that renewing oneself is a holistic process that involves the mind, body, heart, and spirit. They see clearly that the self-sacrifice they inevitably must make in their jobs only works if the “self” is somehow still attended to. Without regular renewal the sacrifice becomes too great and dissonance results – with often devastatingly destructive results." I love that term “resonance.” I love how the universe does not keep score on this. It just breathes giving and receiving. Breath as essential rhythm. It is up to us to honor this. 

A final thought: When we receive, fully and intentionally, we have an opportunity to receive and give the gift of gratitude. Heart connecting to heart. Breath in and out. The science-measured benefits of gratitude have been well-documented. Why not practice? Dare we say: “Thank you” for everything that comes our way? 

None of this is easy. Self compassion helps. How about the truth of receiving ourselves? Fierce and fearless. Receiving myself just as I am, with strengths and weakness, the capacity to love, the capacity also to kill. Soft heart, strong back. The power of our feminine in leadership. Radical. Deep breath. Who will tell us, with great kindness? “Rest, you are luminous, you are good, you are whole and not alone. Rest, receive yourself?” The world has a harsh need to shape us to its liking. But this is your life, your energy, your unique rhythm in the world. From this center, you are, in Rilke’s words, “ever again the wave sweeping through all things.” 

Thanks as always for reading. Liked it? Please share with others! you (or someone you know) grapple with burnout? Are you yearning for renewal? Are you longing to lead yourself and perhaps others to new levels of unimaginable, extraordinary success and wellbeing? Are you in sync with yourself and your company? Need a space to see clearly? We can support you in finding and living your truth. So do explore if Space Beyond Words is right for you!

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