With Martin G. Moore

Episode #187

Avoiding Burnout: Streamlining your leadership approach

In a recent episode, we explored the continuing decline in mental health, and how it can affect a leader’s role. It’s a sensitive topic, and if this were the only disruptive trend we were experiencing, that would be enough to add to the tremendous load that leaders already carry.

But there are plenty of other issues to contend with: pandemic uncertainty… physical dislocation of people and teams… changes in societal standards and expectations…

This may explain, at least to some extent, the ever-increasing number of leaders suffering from burnout. If leaders can’t remain healthy, positive, and productive in these tumultuous times, then what chance do the people who work for them have?

This episode gives some key insights into the underlying causes of burnout, and presents a solution that can be found only through improving and streamlining your leadership skills. We flesh this solution out more fully in our free burnout webinar, which you can access by clicking here.

Generate Your Free
Personalized Leadership Development Podcast Playlist

As a leader, it’s essential to constantly develop and improve your leadership skills to stay ahead of the game.

That’s why I’ve created a 3-question quiz that’ll give you a free personalized podcast playlist tailored to where you are right now in your leadership career!

Take the 30-second quiz now to get your on-the-go playlist 👇

Take The QuizTake The Quiz


Episode #187 Avoiding Burnout: Streamlining your leadership approach

A couple of weeks ago, we explored the delicate subject of mental health issues in the workplace, and some of the complexities that this presents for leaders. Balancing your duty of care to both the company and the individuals who work for the company can be incredibly difficult, and this can cause additional stressful leaders at every level. If this were the only disruptive trend at the moment, that would be enough to add onto the tremendous load that leaders already carry. But there are plenty of other issues to contend with: the seemingly endless ambiguity of responses to the COVID pandemic in the external environment; the physical disconnection of people and teams from each other, and the shift towards more transactional working arrangements that this brings; and changes in societal standards to put leaders who operate at relatively modest levels in the firing line of social issues, imposing heightened expectations. This may explain to some extent, my observation – albeit anecdotal – that an ever increasing number of leaders are suffering from burnout. If leaders can’t remain healthy, positive, and productive in these tumultuous times, then what chance do the rest of the population have?

Today, I’m going to:

  • Open up with a very personal story that I haven’t told before on the podcast, about the one time in my life when I was seriously close to burnout.

  • I’ll then go into a little more depth about the underlying causes of burnout.

  • I’ll finish with a brief outline of our free webinar on avoiding burnout, and I’ll let you know how you can get access to it.

So let’s get into it.


When I talk about building resilience, I often tell the story of the time in my life, about 20 years ago, when I had a lot going on. I was living in Australia, my home country. I just moved cities to take on my first C-level role as Chief Information Officer of an ASX Top 50 listed mining company. This was a job that demanded a commitment of 60 plus hours a week. For the first – and last – time in my life, I was living a long way for my office, which meant a daily commute of between two and a half to three hours. I was going through divorce with my first wife, the mother of my incredible daughters, Emma, Olivia. I was studying my executive MBA at nights and on weekends. And just when I thought I couldn’t handle any more stress, my company became the target of a semi-hostile takeover bid.

Now this certainly built my resilience. I was tired and I was stressed. Some days, I’d just ask my Executive Assistant to hold my calls and meetings for 15 minutes so that I could close my office door and just catch a few moments with my eyes shut to get me through the rest of the day. But strangely, I didn’t really feel burnt out. I always had a positive mindset and there was a little voice in the back of my head that said, “Well, okay. This might be tough, but it’s preparing me for what’s ahead. I know that I can handle it and I’ll manage to get through it.” So, stressed? Sure. Exhausted? Absolutely. But I never felt like I was going to burn out. At the time, I thought it was just a function of being relatively young and fit. But as I look back now, those preconditions for burnout simply weren’t there. I was just going through a particularly tough time.

There would come a time though, not too long after that experience, when I genuinely found my limits in terms of burnout. My next CIO role after that was incredibly tough. I was working for a smaller organization – and when I say small, I mean less than $200 million in revenues – which had decided to replace its core technology systems completely. Everything from workflow and operation systems, right through to financial reporting – it was an end-to-end big bang upgrade. Without the resources of a larger business there was very little capital to spend, so this project was an incredibly ambitious undertaking. We’d outsourced the technical design and build of the software to a technology provider in Auckland, New Zealand. Now, Auckland’s only about a three hour flight from Brisbane where my company was based, but with all the rigmarole of international travel and time zone change, it was just enough to be a real pain in the ass.

The technology company was full of intelligent, capable, and hardworking people. However, they’d bitten off more than they could chew, and their project management capability was extremely immature. Project management was my home ground, I’d spent a decade or more running large software projects. So for me, this was like watching a slow motion car crash. I started spending a lot of my time in Auckland. I was doing a week about in each location: one week in Brisbane, one week in Auckland. I was trying by sheer will of force to keep all of this together with the service provider who almost didn’t know what they didn’t know. Now, it wasn’t until years later that one of the most senior guys in this company said to me, “I get it now. I completely see what you were doing and why.” So we got the project delivered. It was a little late and a little over budget, but it was fully functional. Of course there were the usual teething issues, but all in all incredibly successful.

In fact, the CEO at the time rated that project as being the key differentiator for our company that enabled us to compete and grow in our markets. It wasn’t until all was said and done that I realized how close I was to burnout. I couldn’t even see it when I was right in the middle of it. Here’s a couple of examples:

In a two year period, I had put on almost 15 kilograms (or 30 pounds). I’d completely lost touch with my good habits around exercise, eating and alcohol consumption. My sleep was poor and my fuse was really short. There was even one occasion in an executive meeting, where I told one of my colleagues to get effed – not once, but twice! Not my finest moment.

I was also single parenting Emma, who was a young teenager at the time. She turned out sort of okay, but I felt negligent every day that I wasn’t spending more time with her – particularly with my travel schedule and often being in another country.

Now that was burnout: a combination of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. The feeling of constantly swimming, upstream against impossible odds at every turn. Trying to compensate for those around me, who weren’t quite up to doing their jobs. Being too proud and stubborn to call a time-out to reevaluate the situation and to create a more manageable set of objectives for our teams. Trying to manage a set of stakeholders who didn’t quite get the complexity and gravity of the environment and to whom I wanted to show that I could deliver on the promises no matter what the cost.

Strangely, instead of motivating me, it created a sense of futility. Despite the fact that this was what I was dealing with, I had to keep my game face on to motivate and inspire the team to produce these near impossible outcomes. It was just dumb. Only the people who were in the engine room during this process, understand how miraculous an achievement it actually was. But boy, the human toll was immense.


Now, like I said, I was probably well past the point of burnout before I even realized it, so this taught me some incredibly valuable lessons about how to avoid burnout. I had to learn how to deliver high impact, high value outcomes without burning the people along the way. Over the years I managed to deconstruct the major factors that I see at play in the lead up to burnout. So much better if you can recognise it before you’re in it, right? Here are my top 10 most common causes of burnout that I’ve observed over the course of my career course:

1. Every day, working for an incompetent leader

Now there are lots of intelligent, capable, experienced, friendly, decent people who are just incompetent leaders. They provide a lack of support to you and a lack of direction. They often lack the backbone to support you the way you need to be when push comes to shove. They often operate with a real lack of consistency and they give you a lack of autonomy. So by far working for an incompetent leader is the number one underpinning driver of burnout.

2. Inability to achieve/The frustration of purpose

Often you aren’t able to achieve what you know you could, simply because the system is stacked against you. You get irrational decisions from above, red tape and bureaucracy, and process roadblocks. That’s going to be a key determinant if you burn out.

3. Oppressive workloads that you can never seem to get on top of

Now, it’s one thing to work hard that should be given for any successful person. For the avoidance of doubt, when you hear someone say, you have to work smart, not hard – well, that actually isn’t true. If you want to be successful at anything, you have to work smart and you have to work hard. Often you are asked to do dumb shit – these are the things that you can see are irrelevant or ineffective, but you are told to just do it. It adds to your workload without adding any value to the outputs, and often comes when weak leaders above you don’t know how to say no to their superiors – more on this shortly.

4. Constantly changing deadlines and targets combined with inadequate resourcing

Have you ever been told that you have to learn to do more with less? Well, you know that’s not particularly helpful unless there’s a clear path for how you should do that. It’s a lazy leader’s way of trying to push people to produce more, without any support for how that might be possible. Frequent changes to the work program create a sense of futility – and this creates the frustration that often underpins burnout.

5. Accountability without empowerment

One of the things that most contributes to burnout is being given the accountability to deliver some outcomes without the empowerment to do so. There’s a podcast episode that deals with this specifically, that’s really worth you listening to: Episode #27: Unleashing the Power of Your People. In the context of burnout, the critical piece here is that when you give someone accountability to deliver something, you have to give them the autonomy to execute on this accountability. This means you don’t step across their decision rights and tell them what to do. As soon as you start making their calls for them, you dilute their accountability, leaving them frustrated and confused.

6. Lack of confidence and competence to lead people effectively

Under performers, bad behavior, and other frailties of the human condition. Now, in my case, I observed this in the service provider that was designing and constructing the software in our mission-critical undertaking. I saw early on that they had an inability to manage their in a way that would deliver a well executed, high quality outcome. But I didn’t feel like I had any other options – we had executed a contract with them, we didn’t have any real control over the appointments they made for the leaders who they were relying upon to get the job done. The point is, this could be a double edged sword. If you don’t have the ability to manage the people around you, or if the people working for you don’t have strong enough leadership capability, you’ll constantly be put under pressure. You’ll feel frustrated and you’ll start down that inevitable path to burnout.

7. Over-functioning for others 

Very often I’ve seen high performers function for the people around them – either the people in their own team who aren’t performing to standard or peers and other teams who aren’t delivering on their commitments to your team. Every time this works out poorly for you. Don’t step in and do other people’s jobs for them, you have to lead them to do their own jobs. And if they don’t report through your line, make sure the source of the underperformance is identified and escalated appropriately, rather than trying to jump in and compensate for someone else’s lack of delivery or performance.

8. Lack of balance 

Now work/life balance is a bit of a red herring, and I don’t particularly like the term. From my perspective, it’s all just life, and you have to decide at any point in time where to put your attention and focus. If you neglect any important area for too long, you do lose balance. The pressure you feel from not maintaining balance with your health, family, and social connections can lead to greater feelings of overwhelm and eventually to burnout. Particularly when those around you see the early warning signs and start to helpfully tell you that you should spend more time doing other things. That can make you feel frustrated, even more trapped and a hostage to the demands of your work

9. Uncertainty and concern for the future 

The whole concept of VUCA can push us towards burnout. The higher up we go, the more we’re exposed to the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world in which we operate. Fearing for the future and not understanding what may be around the corner for us and our organization puts pressure on all of us. It’s like a dull headache – it’s not bad enough to stop us going about our day-to-day work, but it’s constantly there, and it’s a constant source of annoyance. Eventually with some of these other factors added on, this uncertainty can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

10. Pride

Pride has a lot to answer for. I’ve got to say, in my burnout story: at the time I thought I was just being the guy who always delivered when others couldn’t. But looking back with a little more maturity, it was as much about my stubbornness and pride as it was my professional excellence. If I had my time again and I was facing the burnout that I was in that role in an incredibly capital constrained business, I would simply change my approach. I would’ve sucked up the personal hit of having to admit that we couldn’t meet our original targets. I basically would’ve waved the white flag. I would’ve asked for more time and money. I would’ve renegotiated the contract with our service provider. In all honesty, we could have almost doubled the price tag and delayed the project by three to six months, and still it would’ve been the most efficient use of capital that I’d ever seen in my career.


So, now knowing the source of some of these burnout factors, what can you do to avoid ending up where I did all those years ago? As I mentioned at the beginning, we recently held a webinar to deal with how to avoid burnout and you can access it here. This is a much more extensive view of how to execute on these strategies, but I’ll just give you a brief overview of it here.

Really the answer to avoiding burnout, like most problems that need to be resolved, is better leadership. Now, a lot of things in your environment can’t be controlled, but improving your leadership capability is completely within your control. Better leadership on your part is going to result in:

  • Individuals and teams improving their performance

  • Better decisions being made

  • Clearer accountability being assigned

  • Stronger boundaries being put in place

  • Greater support being given to your people

  • Your execution capability being greatly enhanced

The first and most critical step to overcoming a number of burnout factors is in controlling the work that flows to you and your team

Imagine if you were only doing high value work. Work that made a difference, and you could see the link between that and value delivery. This would relieve you and your people of the frustration that comes from being overwhelmed with low value work. It starts with making sure you build the right things in your work program, only taking on the things that really deliver value for your organization – however your organization defines value. And once you’ve done that, you protect it jealously. That means saying no to the things that arise that would potentially complicate, extend, or take the focus from your critical deliverables. Learning to say no in a way that protects your relationships and still leaves you with the tag of being a can-do person is a real art. But like most of the facets of leadership, it is learnable, and we run through some techniques for doing this in the webinar.

The second piece is to set the tone, the pace and the standard for your people 

Being really clear on the environment that you’re trying to create. Ensuring that every individual’s behaviors and performance are up to scratch – no exceptions. Particularly in the behaviors department. If you aren’t super clear about what you will and won’t tolerate, you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decide how far to go in your enforcement of the standards. You’ll have many agonizing internal debates as you try to decide how to handle your people’s choices. Many times, you’ll capitulate and the standards will ever so slightly decline. And this eats away at your culture over time, making your job as a leader even harder. So clarity around your expectations for tone, pace and standard will be a crucial weapon in your quest to avoid burnout.

The third and final imperative to avoid burnout is to build capability in your team

There’s no substitute for this. Everything looks better when you look into your team and see capable, competent, driven people. The ones who run hard without you constantly cajoling them. The ones who are self-starters, who think and act for themselves. The ones who don’t need to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to deliver the right outcomes. As I often say, it’s a lot easier to reign in a stallion than it is to flog a donkey. The first piece then, is to do everything possible to hire and retain the best people you can, with the constraints you have. You know, I did a great podcast episode last year that’s really worth listening to  if you’re interested in learning how to hire and retain the best: Episode #144: The Skills Shortage. Now, after that, it’s all about challenging coaching and confronting your people to ensure they can perform at their best.

Please go and take a look at the free online webinar, which you can find here. This is going to give you a full rundown on using these techniques. It also includes a great Q&A where Em and I answer a lot of the questions from the people who attended the live webinar last week.


  • Ep. #27: Unleashing the Power of Your People – Listen Here

  • Ep. #144: The Skills Shortage – Listen Here

  • Avoiding Burnout by Streamlining Your Leadership Approach Replay – Here

  • Join the Crush Your Career Challenge 2022 – Here


  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Start Now

  • Leadership Beyond the Theory – Learn More


Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Subscribe to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast

  • Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts

  • Repost this episode to your social media

  • Share your favourite episodes with your leadership network

  • Tag us in your next post and use the hashtag #nobsleadership