Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar: Your spend all your working hours meeting with staff, board members, vendors, and more. You lead meetings and training sessions, give presentations, and speak publicly. You give, give, give your energy to projects and other people, but often feel drained by the end of the day.
You’re spread so thin that sometimes that you wonder, “Why am I even doing this?”
And, because you are go go going all of the time, your relationships with family and loved ones are strained. They miss you. Even when you are physically present, you’re mentally checked out. Your self-care is nonexistent, and you don’t engage in activities outside of work or family.
How did it ever get to this point? It’s time to learn how to make a change.
What Is Achievement Orientation?
The reason burnout happens to many mission-driven leaders has to do with what I call achievement orientation. I have not yet met a change agent for good in the world who is not driven by their achievements.
Most leaders pride themselves on being able to set goals and accomplish them. They grow up achieving in school, then climbing the career ladder, and always get rewarded for those behaviors. The external validation comes in the form of praise, salary increases, and it makes them feel oh so good.
The people who know and love them say things like, “Of course you’re going to do well. You always do!” And those words are like music to their ears. So what’s the problem?
Simple. When you experience achievement orientation, you define yourself by your accomplishments and draw your self-worth from what you do, instead of who you are.
And because you confused doing with being, achieving becomes an addiction. The second you have a moment to breathe, you fill it in with more doing so that you can accomplish even more. Many leaders have a false belief that the more they put in, the more they will get out. This makes them feel as if they are doing a good job, and therefore, they are a good leader and a good person who is worthy of love and respect.
Newsflash - you are worthy of love and respect regardless of your achievements.
Think about how you spend your time and energy. When you fixate on achieving, you end up expending your energy on all things external. You get caught up feeling as if you need to be everything to everyone, or as though you are the only person who can solve the problem at hand.
Leaders with an achievement orientation struggle to say no to new initiatives, projects and meetings. Instead, they say yes to everything because they want to prove they can do it all and do it well. Then, when a project doesn’t go as planned, this causes leaders to feel bad about themselves and take the results personally.
Understanding Where Your Achievement Orientation Comes From
The need to achieve across all areas of life has deep roots in a person’s subconscious and stems from the past.
Take a moment and think back to a big moment in your life when you were praised for an achievement. Who praised you — a parent, a teacher, a mentor? What was the message that you received at that time? What was the belief that was formed?
Or, maybe your achievement orientation began because someone said you wouldn’t amount to anything in life or parental abandonment occurred. Since that moment in time, have you been trying to prove your worth through your accomplishments?
The root of these beliefs may differ, but the consequences are almost always the same.
Let me tell you a story about a woman I worked with named Stacy. Her belief system sounded something like this: “When I perform well, I’m praised. Praise feels like love. That means to be loved, I must perform well.”
Stacy grew up in an unstable household with regular fighting. She had alcoholic parents who never praised her, though she was praised by her teachers in school for doing well. The admiration and praise of her teachers made Stacy feel loved and respected, which in turn began to feed the development of her achievement orientation.
Stacy carried this belief system into her career and was continually burning out in the new roles she took on as she advanced. When we started working together, she didn’t know how to create a sustainable work load, even though she was the leader and the one with the decision-making power in her organization.
So, what’s your story?
Do you know where this drive to always be achieving began?
What have been the consequences of it on your ability to feel fulfilled in your work?
How has it impacted your ability to be in love with yourself regardless of your career success?
Overcoming Achievement Orientation
If you’re tired of being tired, and you’re ready to break this pattern, the first thing to do is to redefine what it means to be an exceptional leader. Think of a leader you know who has really inspired you. What are this person’s character traits? How does he or she make others feel? I bet what you conjure up has nothing to do with this person’s ability to run around frantically from meeting to meeting or their insistence to come into work early and leave late every day.
Spend some time getting really clear about your feelings on successful leadership. You first must define these characteristics and traits so that you can begin to align your own behaviors to that which you value and aspire to be.
Next, it's time to work on your own self-worth. I know it’s hard to admit that this is lacking by people who have had so much success, but more often than not, the more success you’ve had, the more self-worth you lack.
Build self-awareness to identify moments when you're attaching how you feel about yourself to the outcomes of your work. Self-awareness is the next step in reprogramming this very damaging pattern of being achievement driven which leads only to burn out and chronic stress.
Are you looking for an easy way to take a small step towards a healthier orientation?
List all of the things you like about yourself. List all of your strengths and positive attributes separate from your achievements. Don’t allow yourself to edit as you write. Simply jot down any positive feeling you have for yourself. Then, look at this list every day. Post it somewhere you will regularly see it. Read these out loud several days a week. It’s your job to reprogram your brain to view your self-worth as something separate from your achievements.
Change the patterns of your actions and thoughts, and eventually you will change the way you feel about yourself.
When you believe in your core that you are perfect just as you are — in spite of your achievements — you can be more present with the people you lead and the people you love. Because you’re modeling real confidence, not the fake kind, you’ll inspire your team and become unshakable in the face of everyday stressors.
Right now is the time to develop into the leader your team deserves — the one who doesn’t simply function on overdrive and overwhelm, but who guides your team with a complete passion for your job and newfound motivation to get the work done.
And, it’s not simply time to change for them. It’s time to make the commitment to yourself. Know that you scaled the career ladder because you are competent and qualified. You’ll always achieve because you’re smart and successful. Just stop allowing these achievements to dictate your self worth. Everyone wins — you included — when you build up your personal confidence and celebrate your self-worth.
Want more tips to avoid burnout and thrive instead of just survive as a leader?
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A proven executive coach and consultant, Carrie has a doctorate in organizational development, and over 16 years in non-profits. She has consulted and coached leaders from more than 30 states, and has held various leadership positions in some of the largest nonprofits in the US.