Flying too close to the fire


Lynda Mansson


Passion is like fire.

Those of us who work in the non-profit world are usually driven by passion for the cause we are devoted to and the ability to make a difference. We are striving in our own ways to make the world a better place. This is a gift for any organization that private sector employers would give a lot to tap into: staff so driven by the mission they give their heart and soul to it. Not for the financial incentives, but out of love for what can be achieved.

This is indeed a wonderful aspect of our work. But passion is like fire. It can warm you and give you energy, or it can burn you, cause injury and put you out of action.

There seems to be an epidemic of burnout, high stress and being continually underwater in our sector which should be of concern to all of us. As funders, this can potentially have a huge impact on those we fund, as well as on our own teams who are also at risk of flying too close to the fire.

What about well-being

Somehow, we’ve developed a set of myths around what it takes to make a difference. It is worrisome to see how we have come to glorify self-sacrifice and being overly busy.

I love the work of the Wellbeing Project, which conducts research and promotes awareness about the need for healthy inner selves to be able to work effectively towards our missions. Their landmark report titled Wellbeing inspires welldoing conducted research which demonstrated the positive impact of individual well-being on performance.

We need to take care of ourselves to ensure that our passion is warming rather than burning us while pursuing our work to make the world a better place.

They also found that 75 per cent of respondents felt that well-being was very important but only 25 per cent reported that they looked after their own well-being to a great extent. Although there is high awareness, we are not so good at acting on what we know.

This is a question of leadership.

This research underlines one of my fundamental beliefs: you must first be good at leading yourself to have the credibility to lead others. Good leadership starts with being well.

Busyness as a badge of dishonour?

As Socrates said: ‘Beware the emptiness of a busy life’. Why do we assume that someone who is always busy and overworked is somehow ‘important’?

Perhaps we need to start using a different lens for busyness. No doubt sometimes this is something truly outside of our control. But often, with a new lens, we can see a perennially overly busy person as someone who is either being taken advantage of by their employer, lacks the ability to set boundaries and/or advocate for themselves, is unable to delegate effectively, or manages their time poorly, lacking the ability to prioritize.

I am as guilty as the next person of answering ‘how are you’ with ‘very busy’, and I battle to avoid somehow presenting being busy as something to be proud of.

I love Liane Davey’s take on this: Stop rewarding arsonists for putting out fires. How about if we reward good planning and priority-setting that avoids last-minute crises and never-ending busyness? I admire people who are great at their jobs and seem to have things under control.

You’re not fooling anyone

I’ve written before about how difficult it can be to be an authentic leader. When you are in a leadership role, especially as a CEO, there is pressure to be – or appear – always ok. But of course, we are all human and are definitely not always ok. Learning to be more transparent about my difficulties is something I’ve had to learn over time and still struggle with.

As a leader, if you are unwell, overly busy, harassed, tired, ill or generally not taking good care of yourself, this inevitably has an impact on those around you. In short, it means you are probably not leading others as well as you could. Inevitably this has an impact on those around you, often in ways we are unaware of. This hit home for me some years ago when a 360-degree assessment highlighted how much my own stress levels were impacting my team, which catalysed me re-think my own practices in self-care.

Some practical steps

It is surprisingly hard to prioritize your own well-being. Sometimes it can feel like yet another thing you need to add to your already full to-do list. Or like it is too self-indulgent. Or that by taking care of your own needs, you aren’t meeting others’ expectations.

But of course, prioritizing feeling well and happy will catalyze your ability to tackle the rest of your to-do list and give you the clarity you need to focus on the right things.  

Here are some things that could help:

  • Be crystal clear on your priorities. Clarity on what is most important amongst all the demands on your energy and attention will help you make decisions on how to allocate your finite resources.
  • Remember your agency. In the past times of professional difficulty or high stress, I remind myself that everything that is happening resulted from my own choices. And if I didn’t like it, I could choose differently. Make changes if you need to, most often it is within your control.
  • Put things in perspective. Stressful situations can feel all-consuming. Taking a giant step back to see a period of stress as just one part of an overall bigger picture (that is hopefully more positive) can help you see that this too will pass.
  • Let go of perfectionism. Aiming to do everything to the highest standard, or even worse, avoid ever making any mistakes, is one of the most common things I see in people who are continually underwater. This is a tough habit to crack, but train yourself to continually ask: is this good enough for what is needed? In most situations, done is better than perfect. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of great.
  • Give yourself a break. So many of us have those nasty, hypercritical and downright mean voices in our heads – always there to remind us of what is wrong and how we are failing. Try talking to yourself as you would to your best friend – with compassion, understanding and warmth. Develop a kinder inner dialogue.
  • Get some coaching if you are continually confronting the same challenges, a coach can help you sort through the mess and take steps in your desired direction.

Being lucky enough to have work that is fuelled by passion is a wondrous thing. Keeping this passion alive means not overdoing it or flying too close to the fire. Take care of yourself in order to use your passion as a flame to warm others, not as a blaze that will consume you and those around you.

Lynda Mansson is the Director General of the MAVA Foundation. After MAVA closes in June 2023, through her new company called LeaderLy, she will focus on coaching individuals and teams working towards the SDGs.

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