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From Burnout to Aliveness – A Journey through the Soul of Leadership

Article by Eliza Ramos (May 2018 eNews)

“…It takes time to still within

And merge with life

Time in the wild to slow you down…

Time to let your life be turned around…”

-Noel Davis

The year 2013 was one that held no memories for a long time, just a blur, an empty blackness. After six years working in social justice and international development, I had completely burned out. The burnout was slow; not the kind of wild fire that destroys everything in its path, but a subtle smoke that burned ever so slightly until the day I realized I could no longer breathe. My physical health had deteriorated along with my mental and emotional health. I had lost myself, leaving a shell that looked and felt like me but was burned black on the inside. Exactly five years ago I finally gave in—I left my current home in East Africa, my job, my partner, my community, my life, and moved back to the U.S. to rebuild my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health one step at a time.

It was in this time that I met Margaret Benefiel, who was co-leading a spirituality and social justice program called the Praxis Program through Still Harbor. After one of the workshop sessions, she handed me a brochure about the Soul of Leadership program. “I think this could be for you,” she stated gently with her usual warm smile. I was hesitant at first, not wanting to make an 18-month commitment when there was so much uncertainty in my life, when the thought of adding something new felt overwhelming, and when I had no idea what exploring the “soul” of my leadership would mean. But eventually, I chose to listen to the curious, quiet voice inside myself that knew if I were to rebuild my life in a sustainable way, I would have to address these deeper, internal dimensions. So, I took a leap of faith.

The 18 months of that journey was a greater gift to me than I could have imagined or expected. Journeying alongside 12 others, I finally had the space, tools and community necessary to take a deep look inward. I slowly shed light on a pattern I had been experiencing since I began doing the work of social justice. The work never stopped—there was always more to do for the cause—so I would work myself as hard as possible until I could no longer function, blame it on the stressors of the work environment or people or job responsibilities, and then move to the next place where the same cycle would ensue. Although the others in my Soul of Leadership cohort came from different backgrounds, vocations, ages, cultures, and life experiences, I was not the only one who saw this cycle in themselves. I realized that this experience of burnout was not mine alone but an epidemic amongst those working in leadership and service in a variety of fields.

Leadership in our culture, regardless of the field, is driven by demands, pressures, and pushing ourselves beyond our limits. As leaders we are told from an early age that we must work as hard as possible at great speeds while maintaining quality. Demands and pressures from multiple stakeholders must all be answered to. In an age of technology, we must be constantly available, responding, and producing. Long hours are the norm. Self-sacrifice is rewarded. And there is an unwritten rule that we must “keep it all together” in the midst of all of these pressures, keeping calm on the outside no matter the internal stress or uncertainty. Yes, this cultural norm has produced great advances and results, but those results are not sustainable. It has also left us with eight out of ten employees disengaged (Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study) and over half of employees in service-oriented professions at risk of burnout in the next year (Nonprofit Employment Trends Survey). As we speed up results, we are losing our greatest resource along the way—our people.

The journey with Soul of Leadership taught me a different way, a sustainable way. Through an exploration of contemplative practices, the best in leadership development, and the inner work that I had been avoiding for years, my internal growth and development was profound. I learned to lead from a different place—a place of abundance, creativity, connection, and joy. This approach is very counter-cultural, and took practice and a supportive community to learn and un-learn conditioning, yet I now believe it is the only way if we are to truly create lasting change in the areas of our world we hope to lead and transform.

My work now, as the Founder and CEO of Circles International, was inspired by all that I learned from Soul of Leadership. We work with social impact organizations to help them support and sustain their leaders and staff in order to create the most impact possible. We are building a movement and global community to prevent burnout and sustain the people we most need to create a better world. We envision a world in which every leader and change maker working for social good is supported and sustained. What I learned most is that it is not either/or—either product or people, either the best outputs or work-life balance, either work hard or be happy. What I learned was that it is through investing in the wellbeing of leaders that they are actually more able to achieve their desired impact in the long-run, and thus we as a society are more able to achieve the world we wish to see.

My life today on the outside looks very similar to what it did in 2013—I work hard at my job, spend time with my partner, family and community, and live a somewhat normal existence. Yet my inner landscape has been transformed—where there was once stress and uncertainty, there is now peace, hope and joy. I think I can finally answer the question I had five years ago about what the “soul” of leadership is. It is an aliveness and gratitude that expands each day. That is a gift that was given to me. That is a gift I hope to give to others. And that is a gift that is priceless.

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