Executive Checklist

What Spielberg’s Jaws teaches us about exec burnout

Ciara Lancaster

Steven Spielberg’s cult-classic movie Jaws continues to perpetuate fear in the minds of viewers long after the summer of 1975.

After the first suspected shark attack, the directive from the local authorities remains firm on covering up any great white shark rumours.  This is to minimise the negative impact on local tourism.  However, there is no denying the severity of the issue when deaths begin to multiply and the external experts are called in to help.

Similar to chronic stress and burnout, everyone assumes that such a significant event ‘could never happen to me’. But the only difference between a shark attack and burnout is that one takes place in the ocean, the other in the office.

Realising there’s blood in the water

In the movie, the character named Quint smashes the boat’s radio so that the coast guard cannot be contacted. This is similar to how a person experiencing overwhelm and burnout may act. They are often too proud to reach out for help, instead preferring to go it alone and work in solitude to resolve the issue at hand.

In today’s fast-paced business landscape, we can’t afford for more leaders to react like this.  We can’t afford for more leaders to flood the workforce with pessimism, presenteeism, and absenteeism.  And we certainly can’t afford for more leaders to exit their industry and enter into an already overflowing mental health system.  For this reason, burnout needs to be better managed and that starts with you.

Responding with compassionate empathy

Here’s why you should care.  2020 research from Gallup confirms that:

  • 76% of employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes
  • 28% say they are burned out “very often” or “always” at work
  • The consequences are real with employees experiencing burnout 23% more likely to visit the emergency room

Recognising the burnout signals

  • You are drowning – You are experiencing exhaustion beyond chronic stress, sleep disturbance and cognitive impairment to judgement and decision making.
  • You are disengaged – You are feeling underchallenged yet overloaded, you lack care and concern for your work and you have a tendency to default to cynicism or apathy.
  • You are discouraged – You are experiencing a lack of professional efficacy, low autonomy or low recognition and isolation as a result of low social connection or out-grouping.

Recharting your course from burnout to best-self brilliance

Let’s now look at three practical ways to start your journey.

Start by jumping the shark

Look back and pinpoint the moment in your leadership when you first began going downhill and spiralling.  Assess whether it was a slow and steady burn or a fast and furious descent.  What were the triggers?  Specifically, the people, projects and power plays that influenced your lived experience.

Be careful not to fall into the trap of being too hard on yourself.  Acknowledge that you were doing the best you could at the time with the information, resources and support available to you.  This is about gathering your key learnings and taking them forward with you.

Stop sharking your responsibility 

Look forward and focus all of your energy towards radical self-accountability.  Why?  Think your organisation and leadership team are going to address your burnout?  They’re not.  Right now, organisations are steam rolling change implementation and adhering to deployment deadlines because, in most cases, the survival of the business is relying on business transformation efforts being delivered on-time, on-budget.

Often the conscious awareness of this truth is enough to shake leaders out of complacency and into personal development.  This is about taking some breathing space away from the source of your burnout, engaging in mindful solitude and embracing self-directed coaching or other external support.

And finally, get a bigger boat

It’s time to get out of your business bubble, broaden your perspective and expand your worldview.  Upskill in optimal brain health, stress management and creativity.  Draw on your existing wisdom, experience and hard work.  And then use these new resources to socialise and collaborate with new connections, new clients and new industries.

When you expand your perspective to spotlight your legacy, you’ll notice your choices will change too.  You will become invested in regenerating from change fatigue and reimagining who you need to become to thrive.  This is about curating a vastly different legacy to that of burnout.

In summary, pandemic pressures, business transformation and change leadership expectations will result in a high volume of leaders burning out.  The onus is on you to avoid becoming another casualty, address your self-leadership blind spots and adapt at a greater speed.  Mark Miller puts it best when he says, ‘You don’t determine your opportunities, you determine your readiness.’


Written by Ciara Lancaster. Have you read?
Best Countries For Adventure Tourism.
World’s Best Countries To Retire.
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World’s Best Countries To visit In Your Lifetime.

Ciara Lancaster
Ciara Lancaster is a change fatigue and resilience specialist at Reimagine Change. Her focus is to help leaders at all levels to manage uncertainty, mitigate stress and modernise their mindset. She is also the author of the new book Reimagine Change: Escape change fatigue, build resilience and awaken your creative brilliance (Grammar Factory Pty. Ltd. August 16, 2020). Ciara Lancaster is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on LinkedIn.
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