Are Social Entrepreneurs Burning Out?

Too many social change leaders are bruised. As Arianna Huffington notes in her Sunday blog post from the World Economic Forum, this issue is no longer soaking in California New Age hot tubs.

Even as they strengthen communities, they are fragile, tired, lonely and struggling to hold themselves together. They are bruised from sacrificing family connections and untended friendships.

We are bruised by long hours, stress, rejection and constant disappointment. Bruised by the enormity of intractable social problems. Worn thin by the constant need to sell solutions and pitch programs — to be the hot new idea (or claim to be).

Even as our hearts are enlarged by the humanity of our work, we feel small. It’s a lousy trade-off.

A colleague once assured me that he would “take a bullet for me.” In the moment, I was touched by the expression of genuine support for my work, my mission and me personally.

Later it struck me as heartfelt, but unactionable. As an image borrowed from the Secret Service, to take a bullet for someone implies proximity. Being there when needed. And being there when not needed.

What does it take for social entrepreneurs to stay professionally, personally and usefully connected with each other?

Living long-distance, fast-paced, change-the-world “suitcase careers” is no different than being in the corporate rat race, or any other pressure-cooker job. The causes are cool, the locations exotic, the pay terrible and the lifestyle burned out. In important ways, social entrepreneurs are just entrepreneurs.

At social change gatherings, we talk exhaustively about institutional sustainability. Less often, or as deeply, do we talk about personal sustainability.

Kickass Type-A leaders from all over the world crave — indeed cry out for — a hug from our community. A little recognition for their personhood beyond or apart from their organizational accomplishments. It’s true for the well-funded foundation executive and even truer for the underfunded social enterprise leader.

At the Opportunity Collaboration anti-poverty leadership retreat, years ago we pioneered a super simple and potent remedy. Each day, an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon is entirely unscheduled: no speeches, no panels, no workshops, no heavy thinking, nada.

Delegates have time to rest, talk quietly, take a walk, step away from their business cards, deepen a friendship and relearn a humbling life lesson: However special our accomplishments, individually we are not all that unique. However smart or brilliant our resumes, we overestimate ourselves.

Connecting with a colleague, sharing a vulnerability, admitting an insecurity or sorting out a work-life balance challenge is part and parcel of social change leadership. We are not robots. Friendship, trust and collegial authenticity are core drivers, indeed predicates, for social change.

Architected by the idea mongers and big thinkers, our meetings are over-scheduled exercises of the mind, not opportunities to mend and mature as leaders. Meeting planners cannot manufacture honest, open, reflective dialogue, but they can sanctify the time and place for it.


About Jonathan C. Lewis

Host/Founder, iOnPoverty

Posted on January 30, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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