This season has been relentless in its assault on our equilibrium. Mistakenly, many feel that they must resolve their own sense of overwhelm before they can effectively lead others. But overwhelm isn’t a problem to be solved; it’s an invitation to shift perspective.
At the beginning of each monthly coaching conversation, I invite my clients to assemble an agenda of things they’d like to talk about. Often, clients name organizational issues they are struggling to manage: a staffing situation, a planning conundrum, a board challenge.
Lately, many clients are proposing a different agenda—themselves. They sheepishly wander into our conversation like this. “I am the primary agenda item this month. I am overwhelmed and can’t lead well from this emotional space. I don’t like my job anymore. I can’t keep up with the ever-evolving problems, and everyone is unhappy with me. This month we need to fix me.”
Overwhelm does require attention. Something needs to shift, but not because it is broken. Overwhelmed leaders benefit from examining their assumptions and making a few key emotional and spiritual shifts.
Examine Your Mindset
Ask someone why they are overwhelmed, and they will usually respond by talking about the demands on their time and the problems to be solved. Eventually they get to the heart of the matter: “I am failing. A better person would be able to handle all of this.” Or “This system is broken. No one can handle all of this, and it’s unfair of anyone to expect it of me.”
These conclusions—that something or someone is broken—naturally invite us into a problem-solving stance. When something is broken, it is the leader’s responsibility to fix it. Define the problem, apply a solution, and restore the equilibrium. When we can’t fix all or at least some of the problems, we register overwhelm. We feel like we are failing.
We are in a liminal season: something has ended, but a new thing is not yet ready to begin. In liminal seasons, systems and processes break down because they are supposed to. We cannot discover a new beginning until something ends or dies. Much of our overwhelm comes from trying to preserve or adapt things that are meant to fail.
What if we shifted out of the “something is broken” mindset? What if we embraced the seismic shifts before us, acknowledging that they are beyond our knowing or our control? What if the problems you feel pressured to master aren’t relevant in the greater scheme of all that is unfolding?
If you give yourself permission to let the problems go unsolved, the overwhelm will dissipate and you will be able to approach the challenges more creatively. You can embrace the opportunity, without being engulfed in overwhelm.
Treat the Overwhelm as Data
A bellwether is a leader or predictor of trends. Originally the term referred to a lead sheep in a flock who wore a bell on its neck to guide the flock. In congregations, the pastor or lead team is often a bellwether for the larger system—the one who experiences shifting pressures and trends first, before the rest of the organization even realizes anything is afoot.
It may be helpful to approach your experience of overwhelm as a bellwether of larger organizational movements. Overwhelm is an invitation to stop and pay exquisite attention to what is emerging. Everything on your plate is an invitation to observe more deeply and to look for the connections between seemingly unrelated issues.
Treat the overwhelm as data. The system is trying to teach you something about itself. Resist the false sense of urgency that goes with the pressure to “get all this stuff fixed.” Attend instead to the deeper meanings. Notice who else seems to be suffering from overwhelm and invite them into an attending stance with you.
Make a Spiritual Shift
Ultimately, to move out of overwhelm a leader needs to make a spiritual shift—from striving to surrender.
We are striving when we work harder and faster, doing the same things we have always done, to overcome obstacles. Striving assumes that you are in control and can overcome chaos with resolve. Striving is not an effective leadership stance in a liminal season. No amount of skill or hard work on your part will resolve the deep disorientation of your organization now. It will only leave you feeling exhausted.
We surrender when we yield to the disorientation. We acknowledge that some conditions are beyond our control. No amount of problem-solving will fix what is breaking. Some part of what is breaking now is meant to—so that something new might emerge.
Yielding is an active stance, not a passive one. You pay attention, stay connected to your Source, and discern new pathways forward. It’s hard work, but much more satisfying than the maddening busy work of striving.
Disappoint the Expectations of Others
Letting go of overwhelm means learning to fail the expectations of others. Overwhelm often stems from our efforts to keep others happy. We want to master these problems to demonstrate we are worthy of high regard. Or we may simply be trying get the complainers off our back.
If your goal is to keep people happy while you lead them through this liminal season, you are destined to experience overwhelm again and again. Instead, keep your focus on the mission of the organization and identify two or three leverage points where you can advance adaptive work. Invite healthy leaders to join you. As much as possible, let others be responsible for their own disorientation and their own happiness.
Overwhelm is a natural byproduct of leading in a liminal season. If you are experiencing overwhelm, it is not a sign that you are failing. It is symptomatic of an organization going through deeply adaptive work. Consider it your invitation to step back, observe and lead from a different place.
Susan Beaumont is a consultant, coach and spiritual director. Susan is a practical contemplative. She works at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual guidance. Specializing in the unique dynamics of large congregations, Susan’s work focuses on staff team dynamics, board development and leadership in times of transition. Rev. Beaumont is the author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going and Inside the Large Congregation and co-author of When Moses Meets Aaron.