Last fall, my friend and former colleague Ed Batista, an executive coach who has written extensively about leadership, posted an article titled, “Dysfunction Isn’t Heroism.” This wise essay reviews the well-established case that forgoing sleep and exercise, scrimping on time with family and friends, and packing our work schedules so tightly that we lack time for reflection all are counterproductive. Ed writes that:
…we've recast dysfunction as heroic sacrifice. We've collectively created a narrative around the nature of work that not only justifies…dysfunctional practices, but also regards those who engage in them as selfless heroes, sacrificing sleep, relationships, and even their health in order to help the organization achieve its goals. We brag about how little sleep we're getting, how busy and over-scheduled we are, how poorly we take care of ourselves--all of which plays into and reinforces this narrative of heroic sacrifice.
Ed coaches CEOs and other business leaders, and teaches MBA students at Stanford University. So it’s understandable that his bottom line is this: “Ultimately we have to recognize that there’s a difference between actual heroic sacrifices and imaginary ones.”
Ed is right.
Still, as I read his article, I found myself wondering how his words would be received in the nonprofit sector. I could almost hear the chorus protesting: but what if the work actually is heroic?
What if the work is housing and support for homeless youth who might otherwise be sleeping on the streets of a frigid city? What if the work is a free clinic in a rural area where thousands are uninsured and medical resources are limited even for those with money? What if the work is feeding kids who get almost nothing to eat at home when school is out? Sometimes lives really are at stake.
Ed is still right.
Interestingly, long before I was familiar with the research Ed references, I learned this lesson in the same place that he likely did: from nonprofit leader Liz Resner. I’ve written previously that Liz successfully taught and modeled the message that you can’t effectively care for others unless you care for yourself as well. Trained as a clinical psychologist, she recognized the trap that leaders and staff in “do-good” organizations often fall into: seeing an overwhelming need; feeling a personal calling to fill it; and working night and day to do so. But then: making themselves sick; or making others miserable; or burning out and disappearing from the work altogether.
Of course, there are times when it’s critically important to work extra hard. Even with extreme intensity. But we can learn that it’s counterproductive to work that intensely all the time.
If we stay late because a child has been hurt, we can leave early some other day. If we staff an event all day Saturday, we can stay home on Monday. If we work furiously for weeks on a major funding proposal, we can take a vacation. If we find ourselves in a life of back-to-back meetings, we can schedule (and stick to) regular times for planning and reflection.
Beneath all this, we can accept the reality that even when the work is heroic, the workers are human. We still need to sleep. Exercise. Breathe. Spend time with people we love and enjoy.
It’s tempting to believe that this wisdom doesn’t apply to us, because the world needs us so.
It’s smarter to accept that it does. Because the world needs us so.