The Antifragile Leader: Leading Through the Burnout By Pascal Losambe, Ph.D.Nov 20, 2022
Over the past few years, there has been a surplus in the number of professional roles in the area of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB). As I look deeper into this observation, many reputable sources, like the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), indicate that DEIB roles have been in high demand since 2020, especially after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others. Following these tragedies, organizations made pledges to invest in DEIB work for moral/ethical reasons as well as for business reasons (the business case for DEIB) ---to win the war on talent, enhance organizational outcomes, and increase creativity and innovation.
Despite the urgency for diversity practitioners, another reality exists. DEIB leader burnout. There are a variety of reasons for this, including isolation, tokenization, inadequate support, stakeholder resistance etc. It often seems like DEIB leaders are constantly swimming upstream in their organizations, which requires a lot of energy and leads to exhaustion and eventual burnout. My purpose in writing about DEIB practitioner burnout is to offer leaders hope and a path away from potential burnout.
Authors Nassim Taleb and Dr. Paige Williams explain that when we encounter stressful and pressure-filled situations, we can respond with fragility, resilience, or anti-fragility. These three states can be explained using a candle as an analogy. Being fragile in the midst of stress and pressure means the candlelight goes out. Resilience means that the light may flicker but continues to burn. Antifragile means the flame burns brighter than before.
When we experience fragility, we are not able to withstand the stress and pressure that we encounter. Usually, fragility results when we experience something unexpected or something that is beyond our control. For the DEIB leader, these unexpected stressors can result when people mischaracterize our actions or behaviors, when there is a lack of support from people we expect to “have our backs”, when there is inconsistency between what an organization says they stand for and their behaviors, and when we do not have the resource to succeed. Fragility can also occur when we shy away from difficult situations and do not address the root cause of the problem. The cumulative effects of these stressors can often result in fragility.
Resilience means we can cope with the challenges and adversity we encounter. We have an ability to bounce back and find a way to carry on in the midst of hardship and trials. Resilience can be achieved by:
- Practicing mindfulness, meditation, and/or prayer---It gives us the ability to not be in a reactive mode, but practice quieting our minds and controlling our thoughts.
- Exercise and movement--- Physical activity releases chemicals that rejuvenates the body and mind
- Self-reflection and journaling--- This practice allows us to move our thinking from our emotional brain to our higher-order thinking brain, which provides us with clarity of thought
- Relationships and social support--- social networks provide an opportunity for people to process what their feeling and also provides them with potential resources to solve any issues they have.
It is my sincere desire that every leader reading this article will experience the next state--- Antifragility. Antifragile means that you do not only bounce back, but you come back stronger. Taleb points out that the human body is built to be anti-fragile. For example, if you go to the gym and lift 50 pounds, your muscles tear, and once they heal, they prepare you to lift 55 pounds. If you are infected with a virus you never had before, your body develops an immune response and prepares you to respond more quickly if that same virus infects you again. Antifragility is a state of mind where we commit to learning about our weaknesses when we face stressful situations. These stressors are necessary because they teach us about ourselves and allow us to grow, even in the midst of adversity. So, the question you may be asking is: “How do I become an anti-fragile leader?” I suggest the following:
- Know your purpose---Purpose has two dimensions: self and the world. Your purpose means you are engaging in work that is meaningful to self AND has an impact on society. With fragility and resilience, the focus is you. In antifragility, the focus is your impact on something bigger than you.
- Be a strategic thinker---This involves having a variety of people from different backgrounds and professional roles in your inner circle. An example of the importance of this is when the muscle is stabilized by ligaments and tendons. The muscle can only be antifragile because of the stability and support given by these other structures.
- Lean into discomfort---It is important that your mindset changes from “Why is this happening to me?” to “What can I learn from this situation?”
- Continuous investment in your head (knowledge), heart (emotional intelligence), and hands (practicing what you learn) ---We as humans often learn best from doing and not just knowing. When we have the skills and tools to thrive, even in the midst of adversity, we become more confident.
As you ponder the triad (fragility, resilience, and anti-fragility), where do you often find yourself when you are faced with hardship. Use the following grid:
Adapted from Williams (2022)
My hope is that you will continue to be at the very least resilient and at the very best antifragile when faced with trials. Anti-fragility is the greatest buffer to burnout. Keep your head up, you can do it!
Maurer, R. (2020). New DE&I roles spike after racial justice protests. SHRM.
Taleb, N. N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder (Vol. 3). Random House.
Williams, P. (2022). Becoming antifragile: Learning to thrive through disruption, challenge and change. Grammar Factory Publishing.