“I hit the wall, Doc. I need your help.”
When one of my highest-performing leaders opened a recent session with this plea for help, it surprised us both. Think Top Gun-era Tom Cruise and ratchet it up several notches. Wildly successful by any measure personally and professionally, this top-of-his-game, prime-of-his-life leader found himself unable to get out of bed and unwilling to engage with anyone other than his wife, his children, and me.
After exploring his experiences and identifying his immediate needs, together we crafted a step-by-step plan designed to support him through this tough time. Part of our planning included prioritizing rest—for his body, mind, and spirit. Once we addressed his immediate physical needs (including a medical review) we moved on to thinking differently about his priorities, scaling back for the moment, and reframing his hard-hitting schedule.
- Recognize the wall—and the gift behind the wall. It is shocking to discover our humanity—especially when faced with limitations and needs. Your wall of exhaustion and your faltering body may be trying to get your attention. What is the message behind this wall? What gifts might be waiting to emerge during this debilitating experience?
- NOW. Stop, drop and REST. Body, mind, and spirit. I know this is hard for leaders. But not resting and continuing to ignore what your body is trying to tell you can be much, much harder in the long run. And here’s a bonus: as a leader, taking care of yourself in front of your colleagues gives them permission to take care of themselves. What would you tell your best friend if he were experiencing the same symptoms that you are experiencing right now? Give yourself that same stellar advice and follow it.
- Reframe your idea of priorities. That urgent work pile is not likely to go away while you are still working. Don’t fall into that trap of “when I get this done, then I’ll…” Peak performers are NEVER done with those urgent projects and initiatives. Learn to manage the anxiety that comes with increased workloads and heightened responsibilities and learn to trust yourself. Change your inner messaging from “I’ll never get this done” to “I’ve got this.” Each day has enough troubles of its own. Keep your focus on the present, and trust that the future will be handled when it arrives.
- Reaffirm your faith—including faith in your family, in your ability to bounce back, and in your organization’s ability to survive without you having to run faster than a speeding bullet. Lean into your belief system and trust that there is a larger purpose for your momentary suffering. Who knows what fruit might be developing in your life through this difficult period? You have to go through the wall to get to the other side—but you get to choose whether or not to keep going through that wall. No one else can make that decision for you.
- Recognize the talent and power in colleagues around you that may have been waiting for their moment to shine—and give it to them. Empower others to step in and pick up some of your leadership responsibilities—who knows, you may realize that you should have delegated more to your colleagues long ago.
- Recruit trusted supporters and invite them to help you recognize the key indicators you missed along the way while heading toward that brick wall. In my client’s case, he’d grown accustomed to being the fastest, brightest, shiniest bulb in any marquis. Whenever people questioned his level of responsibilities and commitments, he would smile and embrace the load—making it look far easier than it actually was. His wife, however, did not. She would question him and offer her advice about his need for solitude and rest—which he routinely ignored. During the quiet moments of recovery from his hitting-the-wall reality, it was her voice he heard in those still small moments while reflecting on what early indicators he might have missed. Going forward, her questions are now a part of his early warning system, as are noticing his emotional state and taking care of his physical need for rest.
- Reap the lessons learned and integrate them into the way you work. Several years ago, I was struck with a bout of vertigo at an airport while traveling to speak at a national women’s leadership conference. I remember pushing through my panic and allowing myself to wonder whether this is the time my life changes and no longer includes routine travel to serve others in my leadership journey. I gave myself permission to stay; permission to leave; permission to wait and see what happens next. Several canceled and rescheduled flights later, I arrived at the conference center with a little less vigor than I’d preferred having learned a valuable lesson: I can build enough margin into my schedule to make room for the unexpected. And, if I do have to cancel or reschedule an event due to illness or unforeseen circumstances, I can do that as well. Life doesn’t have to fit inside of our limiting “all or nothing” perspectives. By the way, I did give that speech and I had a wonderful time with a fabulous group of women—and I made it home just fine.