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I'm sorry, I've been burning out

This week I apologised to my team. At a gathering in London I said sorry for being a drag over the past couple of months. I’d been a little withdrawn, I said, less fun than I used to be, too serious; more engaged than ever with my day-to-day work of driving The Cares Family, but less engaged from my colleagues’ own work of delivering it than I’d like to be.

I’m normally a little more guarded, but that was part of the problem. I needed to open up, and to lighten up. In the previous months I’d been hiding from my colleagues behind an unrelenting workload – in the comfort zone of endless emails and evidence, strategies and spreadsheets – but I hadn’t been showing up with them.

So now I’m ready to be frank: scaling is hard. In 2014 our organisation had two members of staff in one location. In 2019 it will have somewhere between 25 and 30, in four locations. The inside of that experience has been brutal. I’ve had to learn on the job how to fundraise, how to evolve financial structures, how to get the most out of evaluation. And, as a founder, I’ve had to learn – and I’m still learning – how to communicate and make decisions as part of a group.

At times that brutality has hardened my soft edges. I’ve had to be professional, decisive, responsible. I’ve had to get a lot done. And to do that, I felt I had to be seen to be working harder than ever: early mornings and late into the night, every weekend and each bank holiday – always striving for inbox zero or free diary time so I can finally think ahead.

I’ve felt a relentless need to progress. Without that, I’ve feared, we wouldn’t meet the fullness of our potential

But without knowing it, that drive has left me occasionally heavy and frequently stressed – more or less burnt out. Sleeping has been tough. Travel has been hard. Joys have come, but too few and far between. And because I rarely celebrate progress, instead seeing it as a springboard for the next step, I’ve lost energy and likely dulled my emotional intelligence.

This is not unusual in social change. We care passionately about our work, we struggle and scrap for resources, and in a complex and chaotic world we search, sometimes too hard, for elusive control. But I’ve learned from colleagues and from leaders across sectors and across the world that those joys and moments of fun, especially in that context of change, give vital oxygen to the mission.

Because fun is important. Fun is energising, galvanising. Fun is not a woolly add-on to the serious business of progress; it’s a necessary ingredient for it. It creates endorphins that give us energy and keep us happy. And it creates oxytocin – the human connection hormone. Even better: fun, and positivity, are infectious.

So my too brief apology to my team acknowledged what I’m learning: that leadership is not about being closed: it’s about being open. It’s not about withdrawing: you’ve got to show up and bring your whole self to the fray. It’s not about gritty hardworking silence: it’s about discussion and collaboration and compromise. Leadership is not about emails, emails and more emails or constantly trying to get chaos under control – it’s about listening and learning and being with people, enabling others and being comfortable with change.

Leadership is not about trying in solitude to be heroic or indestructible: it’s about being vulnerable, and through that vulnerability helping others to feel togetherness

Over the coming months, I’m going to try to get better, and I’m going to do so by modelling myself more on my brilliant colleagues who even in the hard yards of community work are normally happy, constantly open and always collegiate. I’m going to start joining them for lunch. I’m going to lean into our summer team building day. I’m going to look for new ways for us to share space together, and to be together. I’m going to inject small bursts of joy into the day-to-day – not in a routine or perfunctory way, but because I’m more open to that emotion and more aware of its value to me and to others.

I’m going to occasionally leave my phone behind and occasionally work from home so that when I’m present with others I’m truly present. And I’m going to be open about the big issues, rather than seeking to make singular decisions just because that path feels less resistant in the immediate term.

Most importantly, I’m going to live the vision of our organisation – to myself share time, laughter, experiences and connection with people around me – rather than isolate myself from them for fear of missing a deadline or not responding quickly enough to emails. I’m going to remember that I often say through our work we encourage people to focus on their human traits – play, humour, honesty, kindness, joy – and take some of that medicine for myself. And I’m going to try to infuse that mentality into everything we do together, because ours is a place to learn and a place to grow, and that includes me.

Author

Alex Smith

Alex Smith is founder and CEO of North London Cares and South London Cares.