Career & Success

How Successful Leaders Avoid “Social Good Fatigue”

People who choose to work in the social sector benefit from a sense of mission about their work. But how do social sector leaders sustain their motivation, commitment, and passion over the long haul?

June 02, 2014

Our students are just about to launch into career paths that require resilience, long-term commitment, and selflessness. Ken Saxon, MBA ’88 and the Founder of Leading From Within, an organization dedicated to the self-renewal of leaders in the social sector, says, “When it comes to motivation on the job, people who choose to work in the social sector start out with a clear advantage. They benefit from a natural energy source — passion and a sense of mission about their work.“ But how do social sector leaders sustain their motivation, commitment, and passion over the long haul?

Ken, who runs the Courage to Lead renewal program for social sector leaders, reports seeing too many executives in the social sector lose that spark and succumb to social good fatigue, or burnout. “When you are in the business of inspiring and engaging others, burnout means you’ve lost your best asset.” Here are some excerpts from a thought-provoking conversation I recently had with Ken:

Why do leaders experience social good fatigue?

Social leaders live in a space of permanent emotional drain in dealing with people, selling hope, and trying to convince others to take action.

The demands of the work are unrelenting and greater than that which any one person or organizations can fulfill. Many impact-driven organizations have a mission statement and theory of change that oversimplify the issues at hand and make the journey sound somewhat straightforward. The reality is usually much more complex, ambiguous and nuanced. Facing such complexity day after day in a world that values simple answers and clear evidence can take a toll on leaders.

Also, when your mission involves people’s lives and welfare, the constant urgency of the work can force other important facets of your life to take second priority. Partners, marriage, family, and friends end up competing for time and attention. One nonprofit director I know speaks of why he had to quit his job running an agency advocating for foster kids. He found he was too passionate about the work, had a hard time leaving the office, and his family and other important parts of his life were suffering.

Greg McKeown, MBA ’08, points to another challenging paradox for leaders in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. He notes that success often contains within it the seeds of future failure. Success brings with it many new possibilities that can cause an organization to lose the focus that was critical to success in the first place. Many people mistakenly think that success will make everything easier, and it rarely does. This can wear down a person over time.

What does social good fatigue look like?

Leaders with social good fatigue stop learning and growing. They get rigid and have a hard time opening themselves up to new information that could propel their work forward. And they stop asking questions and become a defender of the status quo. For any entrepreneur, this scenario is death.

Such leaders also typically lose touch with joy and passion, and this makes it hard to inspire and engage others inside and outside the organization. As a matter of fact, low morale is the norm in ventures where the leader is suffering from burnout.

What are four things successful social leaders are doing?

  1. Successful leaders in the social sector maintain a sense of identity outside of work. It’s dangerous to completely fuse your personal and work personas. Without boundaries people end up seeing you as “the cause” and don’t know how to engage with you in any other way. And it’s critical to maintain and invest in relationships outside of work. Social relationships can be a wonderful source of renewal.
  2. Great long-term leaders understand that the answer to everything is not to work more or harder. Writer and educator Parker J. Palmer says that in this era of information and data overload, leaders have to make some time each day where they get the news from within. By allowing time to check-in with themselves, they stay in touch with their own needs. Different people achieve this in different ways. For some it may be a walk in nature, for others meditation, yoga, or some kind of peer support group where they can share what’s going on for them.
  3. Healthy leaders have built a community of support around them. They are connected to coaches and mentors and colleagues who care for them and can help them stay healthy. And it’s helpful to have a few role models who inspire you by how they stayed passionate and committed over the long haul. Great leaders develop fabulous teams that can function well without them. Of course that’s easier said than done, but it’s critical to the health of the leader and the organization.
  4. Finally, great social leaders know when it’s time to leave. Knowing when you are not the right person to lead for the next lap of the race is critical. As dean of Stanford GSB, Ernie Arbuckle, once said: “Repotting, that’s how you get new bloom… You should have a plan of accomplishment and when that is achieved you should be willing to start off again.”

Research shows that money doesn’t bring happiness. Do we have empirical evidence that successful social leaders are happy?

Fulfillment is branded as the hallmark of the social sector but we have been looking at this the wrong way. Serving humanity may contribute to a sense of purpose but won’t make you happy unless you have a great tolerance for suffering and a good dose of selflessness. It actually works the other way around: leaders who cultivate happiness can serve humanity better. 

In fact, research on emotional contagion shared at the recent Compassion & Business Conference at Stanford University shows that people are particularly likely to catch the emotions of their leaders, so being a happy role model is a highly effective way to influence team behavior in a kinder, gentler direction.

Jane Chen, co-founder and CEO of Embrace, discovered that for herself.

She shared with the graduating class during our annual community celebration last month that after returning from a trip to India she realized that she felt nourished and, as a consequence, was more effective and present with her team. From then on, she started focusing on happiness as a means of achieving her professional goals of saving babies.

Cultural messaging to young people encouraging them to follow their passion as the key to a happy life can lead to disillusionment for those who chose to do so by serving others, because our society doesn’t adequately give them the message that balance is the true key.

In the words of John Gardner in the March ‘94 Stanford Magazine, “We build our own prisons and serve as our own jail keepers, but I’ve concluded that our parents and the society at large have a hand in building our prisons. They create roles for us – and self images – that hold us captive for a long time. […] As Jim Whitaker, who climbed Mount Everest said, ‘You never conquer the mountain. You only conquer yourself.”

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