Originally published: April 6, 2011
Most Burnouts were something else before they slipped into this extreme leadership type. Perhaps the burnout was a hard-charging manager on a rapid ascent up the corporate ladder. Or perhaps she was an extreme leader that exhibited other challenging leadership style such as being a Micromanager or a Super-critic.
Then something happened, something that changed everything. That “something” sucked the interest, enthusiasm and, dare I say, the joy, out of work.
The “something” might be an event such as a personal tragedy, a career disappointment, or an epiphany gained by observing someone else’s sad experiences. Or the “something” could be an accumulation of little events that have piled on top of one another, much as that proverbial final straw on the camel's back.
For whatever reason, the Burnout enters a time and place where they no longer care about the business, co-workers, customers, and often a combination of all three.
Once there, they normally can’t escape.
The Burnout lacks motivation for work. He tries to spend time doing things that give him energy, but those “things” are definitely not the normal tasks of management. Often the Burnout exhibits habitual fatigue, and seems to have a tough time putting on a show of interest – even for his boss. In an odd moment, the Burnout might be caught surfing the web, working a crossword puzzle, or gossiping about peers – anything that avoids reviewing last month's financials or conducting a staff meeting.
Burnouts are noticeable mainly by their lack of presence and participation. While most are fairly transparent, some learn ways to disguise their lack of motivation – at least in a superficial way. The Burnout tends to be indecisive, uncaring, disengaged, and provides little inspiration to their team or organization. They go through the motions, rather than driving performance (or even a reaction, in some cases).
For subordinates, the burnout is one of the easiest extreme leadership types to tolerate – mainly because the Burnout leaves them to their own devices. While Burnouts are unmotivated, they aren't necessarily willing to accept blame for failures. They certainly won't offer subordinates helpful guidance on the politics of the organization, or mentor them. Doing so simply requires too much effort.
Destructive conflict is often present between subordinates when the Burnout is in charge. Stepping in and settling disagreements and feuds is not something the Burnout willingly does. Tolerance of a wide range of normally unacceptable behaviors is quite common.
The Burnout fails as her lack of action becomes obvious to more senior management. While her superiors may be slow to replace her, the Burnout eventually leaves the organization when performance of her group slips – unless she quits or retires on her own, which is not an infrequent occurrence.
The highest level Burnout I’ve ever directly observed was once an ambitious, hard-driving executive – until a personal tragedy sucked all the energy out of his work-life. In this example, the Burnout was able to cruise along in a General Management role for an extended period of time for two reasons – the core of the business was strong and the markets were steady state, meaning the job required little day-to-day course adjustment; and because there was a strong heir apparent who stepped in and handled most issues without the formal power of the GM title.
This Burnout eventually retired early, completely tapped out. I recall him saying, by way of explanation, that “he could no longer pretend to care about a tenth of a margin point.”
I’ve never seen a Burnout in the top executive position of a company, but I’m sure it occurs. In some organizations, a Burnout could conceivably exist at the top for a very long time – if facilitated by the next tier of management, that is. Often the staff below the CEO can “take the ball and run with it” when the chief executive fails to do so. Eventually, the Burnout will become obvious to even a disengaged board, and when that happens, theoretically the end would arrive rapidly.
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