Digging Deep: Leading When You Have No Energy

33 days ago I had surgery on my right knee to replace a torn ACL and repair a partially torn meniscus (cartilage.)  Yes, I’ve been counting the days.

The last 33 days have been difficult.

The worst part?

Not the pain.  Not the physical therapy.  Not walking around on crutches.  Not that I’m under doctor’s orders not to drive.  Not that I can’t go swimming or play catch or run around with my kids.

The worst part has been that I’ve only gotten about 4 or 5 hours of sleep every night for almost 5 weeks now.

I’m exhausted.

How can I lead my company, my family, my church, my small group, and more when I have no energy?

The Effects of Lack of Sleep

Like most people, when I’m tired I am more irritable, more easily frustrated, and less patient.  I find it much more difficult to concentrate, to write, and to make decisions.  It seems to take me longer to do everything.

What’s more, as a leader, my energy level impacts everyone I lead.  As Michael Hyatt wrote on his blog today.

As a leader, everything you do is contagious. If you are discouraged, pessimistic, or lacking in energy, people will feel it. The organization will reflect it. It will spread faster than an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In fact, because of my current situation, Michael’s post this morning titled How to Be a More Energetic Leader really caught my eye.

Of course, his number one recommendation?  Get a good night sleep.

Argh!  Thanks.  I’m trying.

Choose to Be Energetic

Michael’s fifth recommendation is “Decide to be energetic.”  He writes,

This is huge. Unless you are ill, you can be more energetic by simply acting  more energetic. I am always surprised at how my emotions follow my body. If I walk faster, sit on the edge of my seat, and smile, I will eventually feel more energetic.

This is good advice.  However, sometimes leaders misunderstand and get this wrong.  I think sometimes as leaders we think we have to exhibit energy and enthusiasm for our teams all the time, even if it means faking it.

In my current situation, I could try to fake it.  I could act like I feel great, I’m excited, and everything is great.  But if I do, chances are the people around me will not be fooled and they’ll think I’m either delusional or a phony.  Instead of inspiring confidence and energy, it would actually undermine people’s confidence in my leadership.

So, after some thought, I put together 5 suggestions for leading when you lack energy.

1) Acknowledge reality. Be honest with people about where you really are.  If you’re fatigued or going through some emotional personal issues, let people know.  You don’t have to go into details, but letting people know you’re not on you’re not 100% will build trust and preempt gossip or speculation.

2) Look beyond circumstances. When you don’t feel good or circumstances are difficult, don’t let your feelings or circumstances determine your attitude.  Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing.  Imagine what things will be like when the vision or goal has been accomplished.  Focus on that instead of the current circumstances.

3) Trust your faith. As a Christian, I know I can rely on God’s promises in the bible.  “I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5).  “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.” (Isaiah 40:13)  If your spiritual beliefs differ from mine, there are still probably some elements within them that provide you with hope.

4) Adjust the pace. When you lack energy, expecting that you’ll be able to do everything just as well and as quickly as when you’re at full capacity can only lead to more frustration.  Sometimes we’re even tempted to make up for our lack of energy by working even harder and longer, which inevitably makes things worth.  Consider extending deadlines where possible. Delegate what you can.  Cut out non-essential tasks.

5) Fill your bucket. When you’re low on energy, ultimately the best solution is do what you have to do to replenish your energy, or as we sometimes say fill your bucket.  What fills our buckets and gives us energy is different for each of us.  Some possibilities include… take a nap, meet up with a friend who is inspiring and encouraging, go for a walk, take a vacation, play a game with your kids, listen to music, pray, write a blog post. 😉

If you lead a team that’s low on energy, you may have to do these things for or with your team.

How do you lead when you have no energy?

26 Responses to “Digging Deep: Leading When You Have No Energy”

  1. I agree with a great part of your posting, but … I sleep for about 4 or 5 hours for years now and i feel broken when i wake up after an eight-hour-sleep.

    When i started college on university we were instructed by a Phd. He said two things that resulted in a standing ovation.
    1. There’s enough energy in beer to get you through study
    2. You can train yourself to rest good in 4,5 – 5 hours of sleep.

    I’ve tried it and it works! 5 hours should be minimum, but even 4.5 is possible.

    There are times when i need some more sleep. These are times in which i get stressed out emotionally, but in normal hard working situations 5 hours is enough.

    • John, thanks for your comment. I would love to believe anyone can train themselves to function on 5 hrs of sleep, but I’m afraid I’m a bit of a skeptic. Have you got a link to support this?

      It’s not unusual for me to go a week on 5-6 hrs of sleep a night, but then I need a nap during the weekend otherwise my performance suffers the following week.

  2. I have had knee surgery before I can attest to the fact that you can’t even breath without some sort of discomfort, let alone sleep.

    I think the faking it part has a whole lot more credence than people give it credit for. Sometimes, when we are tired, all we can think about is how tired we are and that makes us even more so.

    This doesn’t matter what the situation. Whether you’re sleepy or in a bad mood or just depressed, sometimes we need to do the opposite for a little while just so we can get a break from the monotony.

    I also agree with being honest with people. If you’re going through a rough time, tell your team. People will often surprise you with how they will step up and do things to help.

    • Thanks Kevin, I agree that when we’re tire, in a bad mood or depressed, we need to break out of it. But I think the best way to break out of it is by digging deep – finding strength and energy from things deeper than our current circumstances – rather than faking it.

  3. I agree with the steps listed here and on Michale Hyatt’s site.

    Delegation also helps. If you are the type of leader that has a hard time delegating, you’ll be more prone to fatigue. This can hurt your team. Proper delegating can allow others to step in and provide the energy when you cant.

  4. For 17 years I went to work at 3:00am. I tried to get to bed by 9 or 10 but was not always successful. I lived on about 5 hrs a night. But I was always worthless after about 8:00pm.
    One thing I did that helped was to plan my most important events/study/prayer for my best waking hours. I tried to prioritize so that my best time was spent doing what was most important.

  5. Thanks for sharing those tips. I’m not in a leadership position but I know for the me those tips are still true. You have to get enough sleep and be taking care of your body to be able to function right and the way we live reflects who we are. I have trouble with the sleep one too.

  6. Paul,

    Sorry to hear about your lack of sleep. That kind of sucks..

    For most of my adult life I have functioned off of about 5-6 hours sleep per night. If I sleep 7 hours or more I feel so tired..

    Sure you’re “supposed” to sleep 8 hours but I can’t do that.. I will say before I stopped drinking sodas I probably only slept 4 hours per night for about 10 years, but once I cut sodas out a year ago I couldn’t do it.. The lack of caffeine is definitely felt.

    I think as a leader you have to be real and be honest with your people. But, if you’re in a retail type environment you can’t let them “see you sweat”.. YOU have to have the most energy regardless of how you feel..

    • Thanks Scott. I think everyone’s wired up differently. Some people need 8 hrs sleep to be at their best, some can get by on 5. It’s been a while since I’ve worked in retail, but I’m not sure I can buy into the “never let them see you sweat” philosophy, even for retail.

      • What i meant by that is when I ran a Pizza place I had to be the energy for the business.. If I was lacking in energy, the team would. They will mirror your attitude both expressed and unexpressed.

  7. Thanks for the tips Paul. Praying that you will be 100% and back on track soon! I shared this post with a friend and it was what she needed right now, so thanks again!

  8. Still feeling the effect of 10 hour time difference, and some brutal jet lag. Since I left for Kenya 3 weeks ago, I’m not sure I have slept more than a few hours at a time. I understand exactly what your talking about. Not sure what I would do if I couldn’t at least work my body a little during the day. Hang in there!

    • Thanks Rusty. Maybe it was the excitement of being there, but I didn’t have any trouble adjusting to the time change and jet lag when I went to Kenya. After coming back, though, it was brutal. Took about a week to recover. You were in Kenya longer & are 3 time zones further away, so I imaging the adjustment is even more difficult.

  9. wow, I hope you have fully recovered.
    I like the fact that you emphasis choice, because that is essentially what you have said in all your points. Each one is a choice, even ‘Adjusting your pace’.
    But I know how hard it can be; I am currently missing out on a lot of sleep because of my little one month year old.
    but it is ok

  10. Wow – I had no idea about the effect that this was having on your sleep. I feel your pain in that regard. Lack of sleep can have a big effect.

    Thanks for this post. It’s very timely for me, personally. I’ve been incredibly busy lately and it’s getting me down. On my plate:

    Creating 4 really big videos for my church denominations’ international convention coming up (this was handed to me – I didn’t sign up.)
    I’m preaching this Sunday
    I’m also leading the music this Sunday
    I’m the webmaster for my homeowner’s association.
    My normal job duties at my church.
    I’m attending a retreat at the beginning of next week for which I’m supposed to have read a book which I haven’t even purchased yet.
    Getting a discipleship group going.
    Participating in 31DBBB.
    My wife and daughter are both sick.
    Whining about how busy I am.

    “Choose to be energetic” is great advice, and it goes with #2. When you focus only on your circumstances and how bad/annoying/lame they are, it’s easy to let them dictate how you feel. I know that, in the end, everything will be okay. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Chris, do you every say “no” to anyone or anything? 😉

      • Ha! You can bet I’ll be saying “No” once I get past all of this!

        I’m usually pretty good at keeping some boundaries in my schedule, which is why I’m a little bit perplexed at how I’m in this fix. I managed to unload having to preach this Sunday, which is good (though I enjoy preaching).

        But that’s a good reminder – as I heard someone say before, “‘No’ is a biblical word.”

  11. Nice post – and it comes at a really good time for me as I have been facing serious serious burn out not only in my job but in almost every facet of my life.

    Keep blogging!

  12. For me, there is nothing worse than having a bad night of sleep (I need 7-8 hrs). Then when sleeplessness continues (SHEESH!!!) and I can’t get a grip on it, I am definitely a *grouch* with a capital G (putting it nicely)! I taught school for 15 years and know how tiring it is to be “ON” all the time and try to function with no sleep.

    When situations came up for me and I felt out of control because of my moodiness, I’d start saying to myself, “BPR, BPR, BPR, (My motto for Breathe, Pray, Relax – a reminder to myself that this student — or class–in front of me can’t help it that I am grouchy and didn’t get enough sleep — nor do they probably care.)

    Thanks for sharing your tips. So, BPR, BPR, BPR…hang in there!

    Trish Z.
    Certified Leadership Coach and Speaker

  13. Thank you Paul! This message was a great Pick-me-up I have been working two jobs at 50 to 60 hours a week. This was a God message, thanks for being His vessel.


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