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The Antidote to Sacrifice Syndrome

True confession. I’d not heard the term “sacrifice syndrome” until a few weeks ago. Yet when I did, it put a name to something I’ve seen in leaders across organizations and something I’ve experienced a time or two. It also caused me to recall a time when I narrowly avoided falling victim to sacrifice syndrome myself.

I was working for a company I was loyal to, putting in over thirteen years. I did my best and spent my fair share of hours, evenings, and weekends to carry through the responsibilities of my job. I took work home, skipped lunches, and worked through many tough situations that took both a physical and emotional toll.

A new CEO was named and he brought with him a new top leadership team. There was uncertainty about everyone’s job security and even more about the direction the company would take. I was teetering. Should I stay and see what happens? Or should I volunteer to take a severance package?

And then, in a flash, it was clear what the answer was. That clarity came when the CEO shared what he believed was an inspirational “locker room” speech. Funny thing is that his “rah-rah” speech did NOT inspire me to stay and to jump on board. It DID inspire me to quit.

What did he say that made my decision to leave so clear? The tipping point was his admonition that he expected leaders at all levels to “walk through walls” to turn around the ship. The minute I heard that expectation was the moment I knew I needed to leave.

Without a doubt, I willing to work hard. I had done tough stuff before and was capable again. I clearly understood that we needed to make substantial changes. But walk through walls? No way!

It was clear then and proven later what that meant to those that stayed. An unmanageable workload. Unrealistic expectations to hit arbitrary financial targets. Continual pressure to perform without support or any degree of loyalty.  Knocking down “walls” at the expense of all employee’s health and personal well-being.

I decided, at that moment, that I was unwilling to sacrifice my talents, health, family, and well-being in pursuit of profit for the top and ongoing layoffs for everyone else.

Far too often organizations continue to ask more and more without providing anything back. More hours, more work, more responsibility without more help, support, pay, or recognition. Far too many good people respond with diligence and fortitude to manage this intense pressure.

With that pressure, leaders fall prey to the sacrifice syndrome. They are unable to have the time, space, or mental energy to do what they should: plan, improve, develop others, serve customers, relate to employees, collaborate cross-functionally.

Instead, they live in a reactive state of responding to one crisis after another. Days become battle zones. Leaders do their best. They squeeze in more and more by coming in early, staying late, skipping meals, working weekends, and taking even more work home. Only the urgent gets done, which allows time for the smoldering fires to ignite, creating the next crisis. There is a perpetual state of never feeling caught up, never feeling effective, and never feeling they can do all that is asked.

The insidious part of the sacrifice syndrome is that it is a negative spiral. The worry and lack of rest tax their mental and physical state, stoking reactive decision-making that is less than clear-headed. That creates even more challenges, which only adds to the stress and pressure. And so you spiral deeper and deeper, day after day, week after week, month after month.

I still can’t identify what gave me the foresight and good fortune in this situation to say no to “walking through walls”. Somehow I knew it was more likely pounding my head mindlessly on an unyielding wall, leaving my life and well-being a bloody mess. Truth be told, I narrowly escaped in this instance, but have fallen to sacrifice syndrome too many times before.

The insidious thing about sacrifice syndrome is the highest performers, those with a strong work ethic, and those with the most tenacity are easy targets. The victims are multiple: the leader, the teams they lead, their families, and the organization itself. There are no winners when overextended leaders can’t think with clarity, make solid decisions, be proactive and act as a positive force for their teams.

The antidote to the sacrifice syndrome is stepping out of the day-to-day to put a stop to the downward spiral.

What do you do when you step out? You rest. You reflect. You get your bearings again. You breathe. You find a more centered and calmer place. You replenish both physical and mental energy.

Stepping out to renew is counterintuitive in our “do more/sleep less”, work hard/play hard culture. But it is clear to me (and scientists and many other smart people) that taking the time to replenish ourselves enables us to make better and more clear-headed decisions, to be able to connect and inspire those we lead (after all – emotions are contagious), to see solutions instead of only problems, and to move from reactive to proactive.

RENEWAL is the KEY to restoring balance and perspective.

Renewal is critical.  I’m NOT talking about dropping with exhaustion on the couch and mindless binge-watching TV. I’m NOT talking about leaning into alcohol, sleeping aids, and other artificial ways to address the stress in your life. I’m not talking about a whirlwind vacation.

I AM talking about going to a place, often in nature, that is calming. I AM talking about finding time to not have every moment scheduled. I AM talking about rest. I AM talking about reflecting. I AM talking about tending to your mind, body, and soul.

I think this is so important to leaders today that I’m offering a RESET RETREAT as an antidote to anyone suffering from sacrifice syndrome (or at risk for it).  The Evergreen Leadership Reset Retreat is 24 hours on August 28/29. You’ll be in a natural setting. You’ll be guided through a process to renew and reset. You’ll have time to breathe and rest.

You’ll also learn some ways to renew yourself and your energy every day. So that you more often show up in your leadership role centered, grounded, and more equipped for the challenges you face.

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