Running on Empty

By Mark vonAppen

I’ve heard it way too often lately, “Dude, I’m out.”
I have been there too and done it all; believe me.   I have played nice, played hardball, caused a big stir, and walked away from everything more than a few times. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time, start all over somehow and get it right from the start.  It’s too late to go back now, but over 40 years of living through mistakes, some of them on an epic scale, has taught me a few things.  One of the biggest things that I have had to learn to do is allow time to celebrate victories, no matter how small.  Celebrating success is a key survival technique and it works whether you are adrift on the ocean or foundering in a rudderless organization, but you have come to the realization before you’re completely out of gas.
Too often I see my brothers and sisters in the fire service throw their hands up in surrender and cry, “Uncle!” as their organizational frustration reaches its zenith.  The courage and perseverance that it takes to drive positive change and influence a cultural shift is much less spectacular than the story of one who quits in a fit of passion.  I have been there, ready to quit, many times myself.  I had no place to be other than where I was at the moment, yet I always wondered where I was going, I always sought a better answer, and I couldn’t settle for the status quo.  Like me or not, I push, constantly look ahead, and ask, “What’s next?”  I have experienced a lot of setbacks and heartburn along the way.  I subscribed to the notion that you have to burn some bridges in order to light the way for change and I wasn’t always successful in my approach.

“The courage and perseverance that it takes to drive positive change and influence a cultural shift is much less spectacular than the story of one who quits in a fit of passion.”

I began working and pushing to the exclusion of everything else.  I began to equate success or failure in my professional life with who I was, taking every perceived slight – no matter how small – as a personal assault on my character.  Part of the make up of people like us is that we are ultra-competitive and we cannot tolerate losing.  When we are not successful, either individually or collectively, we take it very personally.  All of this self-imposed pressure can add up and we lose sight of the many small victories that add up to bigger, more widespread successes.  If you don’t give yourself credit for the good that you do, focusing only on defeat, then there are no points for winning and the emotional toll will be devastating.
Preventing burnout:

·      Don’t become an island: Have a trusted group of peers to confide in; keep open lines of communication with mentors.  Chances are one of your friends or mentors has been through the same challenging circumstances and can offer guidance during trying times.
·     Delegate responsibility:  If you’ve been leading right (allowing your people to lead from anywhere), you have built the mechanism to step away when you need to.  If you have talented and prepared people around you allow them to shoulder some of your burden, it will keep you from being overloaded.
·      Don’t let setbacks define you: Don’t let what you weren’t able to get done overshadow what you were able to accomplish.  My competitive nature has made this a difficult one for me.  When faced with organizational roadblocks, put your head down and continue to work at finding a positive solution.  If you can’t find one, seek answers from outside of your organization and drive change from the outside in. 
It is far too easy to dwell on the negative and wrap yourself in a cocoon of self-pity.  Sometimes you have to walk away to see if anyone will notice.  If the noise you were making is truly for the good of the organization they will notice how quiet it is and come looking for you to ask for your help.  If you do decide to walk away, rest assured that the machine will continue to function without your contributions, you must be prepared for that.  
There is a difference between compromise and being compromised. Compromise is an agreement or a settlement of a dispute by two sides making concessions. Compromised is to weaken a reputation or principle by accepting standards that are lower than what is considered acceptable. It is possible to compromise on an issue without compromising your principles. 
Change what you can change and put the rest aside in the short term.  The big battles will still be there when you get back, better to chip away at them over time than to try to break off a large piece all at once.  The burden you bear will lessen, and your river of personal pessimism will recede because you will witness the positive fruits of your labor in the development of others around you.  

Don’t ever apologize for being who you are, every organization needs a jackhammer or two to shatter the mold of complacency and shift the sands of the intended shore.  The people that matter will know who gets the most done.  When you see your brothers and sisters performing at a high level in concert with one another, that’s when you know you’re winning.  The time to give yourself credit for small wins is before you’re running on empty.

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