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What does stalling an airplane have to do with leadership burnout?

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A few years ago, a friend invited me to ride along with him and his flight instructor in a little four-seater Cessna 172 for a flying lesson. He was working on his private pilot’s license at the time, and knowing my interest in aviation, he figured I’d enjoy tagging along for a ride to nowhere in particular. It wasn’t until we got to the airport that I learned what skill his instructor was planning to focus on that day:

Stall recovery.

I knew enough about flying to know that I was in for an interesting and slightly terrifying day, especially in the motion-intensifying back seat of a small plane. 

What’s a stall?

When you hear the word ‘stall’, your first thought might involve an engine that stops running. This is a terrifying thought in a single-engine plane, but it’s not what I’m talking about here. In an airplane, a stall refers to the wings, not the engine. Specifically, stalling an airplane means putting it in some condition where the wings are no longer generating lift and the plane begins to fall out of the sky. 

We spent the bulk of the hour-long lesson doing this on purpose. The instructor would set the little plane’s single engine to idle. Then my friend would pull back on the yoke (the plane’s ‘steering wheel’), pointing the nose of the plane ever-higher until we heard the stall horn sound and the plane began to fall. Then he’d tip the nose down, rev the engine back up, and we’d recover. We did this over and over again.

Wait, on purpose?

If you’ve never had a flying lesson before, this all sounds terrifying and dangerous, the sort of thing you should work hard to avoid rather than do on purpose. Really, though, stalls are easy to remedy: tip the nose down to build airspeed, add power if you can, then pull the plane back to level once the wings are generating lift again. The challenge of stall recovery is not the recovery itself; it’s that you’ve got to identify that you’re in a stall to fix it.

This is why student pilots practice stalling planes over and over again. The goal is to develop intuitive recognition that a stall is coming so that you can prevent it from happening, and also to bake the recovery steps into your brain so that you can execute them almost automatically when you don’t catch the stall in time to prevent it. 

This automatic reaction is especially important when a stall happens close to the ground (on approach for landing, for example) where you have limited time to recover. It feels counterintuitive to tip the nose down and descend when you’re close to the ground and losing altitude quickly, but it’s the only way out of a stall. If you waste too much time thinking about it before you execute the recovery steps, you won’t have enough altitude left to give you time to recover. 

What’s this got to do with burnout?

It seems like everyone I know (including myself) is struggling with some degree of burnout right now amidst the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost all of our important work rhythms have been disrupted somehow and those of us in leadership roles are facing new challenges in how we support those we lead. As I’ve navigated my own response to ongoing burnout, the metaphor of a stalling airplane has been really helpful in my thinking. There are quite a few similarities.

Catch it early

First, by the time the stall warning horn sounds in a small plane, you’ve already missed all the signs that you’re about to stall. Burnout is similar in that the early signs are easy to push through. By the time you start wondering if you’re getting burned out, you usually already are. 

Much like pilots practicing to learn the signs of an impending stall, there are things you can watch for in yourself to spot burnout before it becomes a crisis. Keep an eye out for things like:

  • A growing, persistent feeling of physical or emotional tiredness
  • Feeling increasingly overwhelmed by your to-do list and struggling to make progress on it
  • Finding yourself just going through the motions rather than working to do a good job
  • Feeling irritable and having outsized reactions to little problems
  • Struggling to find satisfaction in your achievements
  • A growing sense that your work doesn’t matter

Go against your instinct

When an airplane starts to stall, your first instinct as a new pilot will likely be to pull back on the yoke, trying to keep the plane’s nose up to maintain your altitude. This will be especially true if you’re close to the ground and don’t have altitude to spare. In reality, pulling back on the yoke in this situation is the opposite of what you want to do. By pulling back on the yoke and trying to keep the nose up, you’re actually reducing airspeed and making the stall worse.

We do this all the time as we’re approaching burnout. You notice your productivity is dropping and that you’re struggling to get work done, and rather than stopping to figure out why, you just push yourself harder. This pushing, just like pulling back on the yoke during a stall, drags you deeper into burnout and makes your recovery even more difficult. Responding when you notice early symptoms of burnout requires you to do the opposite of what your instincts are telling you to do: backing off instead of pushing harder.

Respond proportionally

In stall recovery, so much depends on how early you recognize that a stall is developing. If you notice the sound of the air moving over the wings changing, the subtle drop in airspeed, the slight sluggishness of the controls, all you need to do to avoid a stall is dip the nose slightly to regain some airspeed. If you’ve let things deteriorate to the point that the stall horn is sounding, you need to push the nose down pretty aggressively to get air moving over the wings again and keep control of your plane. If you choose to ignore the stall horn, continuing to pull back on the yoke and command the plane to climb, you’ll soon find yourself tipping over into a nose-down spin that’s much harder to recover from than a stall.

Burnout is the same. If you notice it early, there are some relatively straightforward ways to make things better like taking a little time off and reducing your workload a bit. Once you get to the point that you’re saying ‘I might be burned out’, recovery is more difficult. And if you keep pushing even though you know you’re burned out, the equivalent of ignoring the stall horn, it won’t take long for you to get to a place of very deep burnout that will require some pretty drastic action to recover from. 

One critical difference

As good as the stall/burnout metaphor is, it breaks down in one very important way. In a stall, there’s a set of defined steps that are quick to execute that will get you out of the stall and back in control of your airplane. As long as you can recognize you’re in a stall, recovering from it is reliable and straightforward.

The path out of burnout is much more complex, and the deeper into burnout you’ve gotten, the longer it will take to make your way back out. The steps are different for every person and every situation. Making time for rest and recovery is a necessary part of everyone’s plan, but the remainder depends on what burned you out in the first place and what kinds of things you can do to mitigate those stressors. 

If you’re currently burning out (and there’s a decent chance you are if you’re reading this article), you should take these steps as soon as you can:

  1. Get some distance between you and the primary environment that’s burning you out. You need to give yourself a little space to rest and think, even if it’s just a mental health day or a long weekend.
  2. Spend some time really digging into what specifically is pushing you towards burnout. This piece on the causes of burnout by Elizabeth Grace Saunders will be helpful in your thinking. Once you have a good idea of where your burnout is coming from, identify some steps you can take to make those things better.

Now that you’ve got a plan, it’s time to put it into action. This will require working with your manager, your teammates, your peers, and your friends and family to create the space and establish the boundaries and support you need to get back to a balanced state. 

There will inevitably be some things on your list that aren’t in your power to change, and that’s okay. It’s fine to live with a few of those things, but if they make up the bulk of your list, you might need to consider more drastic action like changing teams or even joining a new company. You might also realize that you’re too deep into burnout-induced cynicism, negativity, or feelings of futility to be able to recover in your current role, and that’s okay too. The sooner you figure out that’s the case, the sooner you can go find a new role where you’ll be able to thrive again.

The good news, especially in the middle of a pandemic that’s pushed our collective resilience to an all-time low, is that burnout is absolutely recoverable. If you’re burned out right now, remind yourself that you won’t feel this way forever. But just like a stall in an airplane, you can’t ignore the warning signs and hope you can push your way through it. The quicker you recognize burnout and respond by taking deliberate steps to address it, the quicker you’ll be on the path to recovery and balance.