March 7, 2018

A Depleted Leader and the “Overtraining” Syndrome

Clinician Leadership | Leadership Development

Reading Time: 2 minutes

High-performance leadership is demanding. It is as demanding as being a high-performance athlete.
When endurance athletes train relentlessly, always pushing their bodies to the limit on every set, every day, over time their physical and psychological condition devolves into a maladaptive state called The Overtraining Syndrome.
Once in that state, more training worsens their physical and psychological condition. They can no longer perform at their peak. No act of their will, no admonishment by coaches to deal with ‘reality,’ or “to push through the pain,” will change the ability of the athlete to perform. They cannot.
The only treatment is rest. In the most severe cases, the athlete can never recover to their previous performance level. It is devastating and often career-ending.
“It can come on so insidiously that before athletes know it, they find themselves trapped in a downward spiral. The harder they train, the worse they do”
The impairment is global – physical and psychological. Like the Depleted Leader, over-trained athletes demonstrate significant mood dysfunctions and thought impairment. Their behaviors can become aberrant.
Recent leadership studies underscore the consequences of weakened leadership capacity due to depletion – the state leading up to burnout. Depletion occurs when there’s no refueling and recovery within the rhythm of a leader’s life. Drained, depleted leaders revert to transactional leadership behaviors, abusive supervision patterns, and maladaptive self-protective behaviors that are ultimately self-defeating. Organizations suffer as a result.
Whether our bodies or our minds, we do adapt to stress. Unless that stress is so persistently relentless, with no recovery, then our bodies and minds do not strengthen. Instead, they deteriorate.
High-performing leadership requires that we bring the very best of our physical, intellectual and spiritual being to the fore, deployed for the benefit of our organizations. Peak leadership performance requires consistent, well-structured, disciplined coaching and “training.” As with athletes, high-performing leaders have also disciplined their lives to include routine bouts of recovery.
A leader’s recovery is the physical, intellectual, and spiritual activities that the leader routinely invests themselves in. A healthy diet, regular exercise, time off, investing in meaningful relationship, spiritual practices, and daily rituals of ‘WhiteSpace at Work,’ are some examples.
Incorporating those recovery patterns into the life of a leader creates a strong foundation for a way of being which manifests in high performance. Absent those patterns, leaders struggle, wither, stagnate, burnout.
As Jim Loehr and Tony Swartz have shown, leaders are corporate athletes, and to be their very best, requires recovery built into their lives.
Picture: Strong legs and shoes of sport man jogging in fitness training workout on off road
ID 67065952 © Ocusfocus |
Video: WhiteSpace Overview. Julie Funt on YouTube. Published 23 May 2016, Accessed March 7, 2018 at

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About the author

Michael S. Hein, MD, MHCM, ACC

Michael S. Hein, MD, MHCM, ACC has over 20 years of healthcare leadership experience in multi-specialty practice, large integrated health systems, academic medicine, and start-up companies. He has extensive clinical leadership experience and deep knowledge in transformational change.

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