Episode #14: Running on Empty Series (Part 1)

This episode launches a 5-part series in which we will explore signs and symptoms of Running on Empty in five different areas of life and work. In each episode I also share one research-based healing and coping strategy to improve effectiveness, resilience and well-being.

This first episode describes some of the ways leaders begin to struggle when they are running on empty. You may recognize some of these symptoms or signs in your own work, either as a leader or a follower. 

This episode also makes the case for getting more sleep as a foundational element to maintaining effectiveness and well-being as a human, no matter what your role(s) in life.


Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode.

This episode kicks off a 5-part series exploring some of the life circumstances that can lead to burnout and how to identify some of the signs that stress is starting to wear away at your effectiveness, your health and overall well-being. Each episode will also explore one of the research-based well-being activities or rituals that can help you recover and begin to restore your equilibrium.

According to research by Tony Schwartz, CEO and Founder of The Energy Project, and co-author with Jim Loehr of “The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time” we have 4 sources of energy--mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Each of these sources can be challenged (much like a muscle), but (just like with a muscle) recovery is where the growth actually happens. Most of us overexert, and fail to recover, in some areas, and underexert in others. Overexertion without recovery leads to illness. Under-exertion leads to atrophy.

At the conclusion of each of this 5-part series, I hope you will go to @theboothandrews on Instagram and comment how YOU know that you are starting to run on empty, and what type of recovery rituals help you start to recalibrate.  

So today we’re going to talk about running on empty in leadership.

What are some of the qualities that you admire in a leader?

When I ask people this question, here are some of the things that I hear: integrity, confidence, transparency, open communication, putting the people they serve and the organization’s well-being before their own, visionary, inspirational, a great problem solver, consistency, an ability to build and maintain trust, etc.

What I have observed, is that when leaders begin to run on empty, they begin to struggle to exhibit these very same characteristics. Some of the things that I’ve observed are things like this:

  • People start to question a leader’s judgment because perhaps it doesn’t seem consistent with decisions they have made in the past.

  • Leaders develop tunnel-vision in their decision making. I remember in my first career some of the biggest mistakes I made, were when I did exactly what my boss told me to do, without thinking through all of the potential ripple effects. And it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have done what he asked, it just means I had the opportunity to think more broadly about the impact, and how to do what I was being asked to do in the most effective way.

  • One of the other things where running on empty affects leadership is in making decisions, perhaps uncharacteristic decisions, that put your people or your organization at risk. In fact, in Arianna Huffington’s book “Thrive” she notes that The Exxon Valdez wreck, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, and the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island all were at least partially caused by lack of sleep.

  • Leaders who are running on empty have a hard time showing up consistently, and consistency is a critical element of building and maintaining trust.

  • I also hear from leaders that they begin to lose their passion for their work, and they lose their energy for problem-solving. We become less creative and less innovative when we are running one empty.

  • Leaders who are struggling also have a hard time letting go and delegating. It’s almost like the more overwhelmed they become, the more tightly they hold on to everything; thinking that they are able to exert some measure of control over their impact or outcome. But what is actually true is that the tighter they hold onto those things, the less effective they are as a leader and a guide for their people. They don’t give their people the opportunity to grow, because aren’t willing to let loose of some of the decisions and some of the actions that need to take place.

  • And when running on empty gets really, really bad, I know that leaders often struggle to know if they have anything left to give; almost like they’ve depleted all of their capacity and everything that they brought to the table. And they are not really sure how to access it anymore.

Believe it or not, we cannot lean exclusively on willpower to assure that our behavior as leaders will be in the best interest of the people we serve and the organization that we serve. Research actually shows that willpower is  very limited and an easily depleted resource. As human beings, we do not have enough willpower to put other human beings (or our organization) first if we are depleted and exhausted.

So, one of the antidotes to running on empty, and really the first one that I ran into on my own journey to healing and well-being, is sleep. Arianna Huffington notes that when you type the words why am into Google, the predictive analytics helpfully offer “why am I so tired” as the rest of your search.

The Western workplace culture is practically fueled by stress, sleep deprivation and burnout, and almost a prideful attitude about how much we can get done on how little sleep. What is true that over 30 percent of people in the United States and the United Kingdom are not getting enough sleep. And it isn’t just decision making and cognitive functions that take a hit. Even traits that we associate with our core personality and values are affected by too little sleep. According to a study from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, sleep deprivation reduces our emotional intelligence, self-regard, assertiveness, sense of independence, empathy toward others, the quality of our interpersonal relationships, positive thinking, and impulse control.

When I talk with young leaders, I ask them what they’re afraid of. And of course they, and probably most leaders, are afraid of letting their people down, afraid of making a mistake that is not a recoverable mistake. And yet, at the same time, we are living in a world where leaders behave as if they can operate forever on too little sleep. I am here to tell you that the less sleep you get as a leader, the more likely it is that you are going to make a mistake. And that mistake may even venture into places that you never thought you would have to struggle with, such as your fundamental value system and your fundamental beliefs.

Sleep is necessary for healing. The body is constantly repairing itself. A living being is constantly repairing itself against all of the different insults that we go through every day, at a molecular level, at a cellular level, at an emotional level. Disease happens when the repair process is not keeping up with the damage process.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, when we sleep, blood supply to the muscles increases, tissue growth and repair occurs, energy is restored, hormones are released; such as growth hormone which is essential for growth and development, including muscle development. Sleep helps us thrive by contributing to a healthy immune system, and can also balance our appetite by helping regulate levels hormones which play a role in our feelings of hunger and fullness. So when we’re sleep deprived, we actually may feel the need to eat more.

In 2005, when I didn’t heal after a laparoscopic surgery, I ended up consulting a practitioner in ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. He did a cortisol study on me. I think at the time, I probably hadn’t ever heard of cortisol. I’ve mentioned in some of my other episodes that cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress. What the cortisol study  revealed was that my cortisol spiked at midnight, which is the exact opposite of what cortisol is supposed to do, which is to be at its lowest at night and spike in the morning. Basically, I had been living with elevated cortisol for so long that its natural pattern had become disrupted. Not only was this elevated cortisol interfering with my sleep, it was interfering with my ability to heal.

In 2012, when I first sought help for depression, the provider who specializes in psych meds told me, “If you don’t sleep, we are not going to be able to help you heal.” At the time, I had not slept more than 4-5 hours per night for at least 2 years. I was having adrenaline filled nightmares; waking up with my hairs standing on end in a cold sweat. Or I would wake up at 2, 3, or 4 in the morning, unable to go back to sleep.

Today, I am selfish about sleep. I actually have 9 hours of sleep blocked on my calendar. And when my kids want me to stay up, I tell them that I cannot stay happy and healthy and be the calm and patient Mommy they want me to be if I do not get rest.

And the same is true of leaders. Leaders cannot stay happy and healthy and be calm and patient in the face of all of the challenges that come with leadership if they do not get enough rest. When I start to feel the world closing in a little bit, when I start to get reactive and impatient, when I start to feel overwhelmed, my first “go to” now in my life is sleep. After a good night’s sleep, I am able to re-evaluate or tackle the challenges in front of me with a fresh, more grounded perspective.

So here are some tips and tricks to improve sleep:

  • Set regular bedtime

  • Get a new pillow. And a new pillowcase.

  • Make your bedroom dark and keep it cool.

  • Practice deep breathing before bed (meditation apps can be very helpful here too)

  • Take a warm bath before bed

  • Exercise or at least walk every day

  • Banish all LCD screens (laptops, tablets, smart-phones, and TV) an hour before bedtime

  • Cut down on coffee after 2 p.m. and avoid alcohol right before bedtime to give the body time to metabolize it.

  • Build recovery rituals into your day such as stepping away from your desk (without your cell phone) every 90 minutes and taking a break to stretch, walk, step outside to get some fresh air, even just for a few minutes

  • Explore supplements in consultation with your healthcare providers; supplements such as Natural Calm which is a magnesium supplement, or supplements that reduce cortisol, if you have reason to believe that your cortisol may be out of whack

So, today, we explored some of the ways that running on empty can start to show up in leadership behaviors--essentially interfering with your effectiveness and capacity as a leader. We also talked about one of the most powerful and important antidotes to running on empty which is getting enough sleep. And I also I shared some tips and tricks to help you start to get a better night’s sleep. When you sleep you have the opportunity to heal and repair the damage from the day. When you sleep you have the opportunity to build resilience to take on those challenges that will inevitably be there tomorrow.

I hope you will go to @theboothandrews on Instagram and comment how YOU know that you are starting to run on empty, and what type of recovery rituals help you start to recalibrate.  

For more information about the work that I do with individuals, groups and organizations go to boothandrews.com. You can also find me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @theboothandrews.

Thank you for listening. If you haven’t already, please hit subscribe and remember to rate this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts.

I look forward to being back with you next time!