There are a variety of jobs in the world. Some are by nature less intense than others. I’ve had several friends that have worked as late-night security guards at various buildings or housing developments. Although their presence was important, they often related to me that the job itself was not particularly intense: they regularly spent time reading books, studying for exams, or otherwise filling their attention while on the clock.
My employment experience in the non-profit world has been somewhat different. Not only is presence important, but the intensity is fairly high. I am rarely in a position of struggling to figure out how to fill my time simply to put in the required hours. More often, we face decisions about what to say no to, what to let go of, because there isn’t enough time or energy to do everything that we could possibly invest ourselves in. There’s no end to the relationships, the preparation, the communication, the meetings that we could involve ourselves with.
But how do we know when we’re outpacing ourselves? How do we know if we’re pushing ourselves too hard, for too long—overamping on our intensity in unhealthy and unsustainable ways? How do we know whether, in the course of our desire to be excellent contributors, we are actually stretching ourselves so thin that the quality of our followership is actually diminishing, even if our short-term output seems to be multiplying?
Anglican minister James Lawrence presents this idea as “living in the red zone” (see Chapter 4 of his book Growing Leaders). He uses the analogy of the tachometer in a car: a measurement of the revolutions per minute as an indicator of how hard the engine is running. Every car has a uniquely calibrated red zone marked on the tachometer, which indicates a dangerous level of engine output. Sustained operation of the vehicle at or beyond this level will result in inefficiency and, ultimately, engine failure.
While we can push the car that hard on occasion, we would be wise to heed the warning of the red zone. Unfortunately, very few vehicles do much to draw attention to the red zone reality. Unless you’re watching your gauges, attuned to how the vehicle is operating, you may suddenly find yourself stuck on the road somewhere—having burnt out all your vital mechanisms.
Lawrence identifies 5 gauges that we can take note of in our lives as indicators of whether we’re prolonging a level of output that is in our personal red zone. He offers us the physical, emotional, relational, intellectual, and spiritual gauges. There are a number of red zone indicators for each gauge, but I’ll highlight the most significant warning signs for me personally; perhaps you’ll be able to relate.
Physical gauge: In addition to feeling perpetually weary, you may be operating in the red zone if you routinely get sick whenever you have a chance to take a vacation or get a bit of holiday. To my shame, this happened to me just this summer, but thankfully my wife picked up on it and brought this reality to my attention.
Emotional gauge: Those involved in various non-profit or humanitarian endeavors, or those employed in service industries, may be familiar with the idea of ‘compassion fatigue’, the weariness that comes from constantly sacrificing oneself for the sake of others. This can lead to dispassionately engaging in caring for truly hurting people, relinquishing the initial fervor that you felt in providing service or support to others. In addition to this symptom, you may be operating in the red zone if your thoughts frequently turn to your “escape plan”—what it would look like to leave your current role and venture off into something new that feels like it would be more fulfilling or restful or exciting.
Relational gauge: It’s not surprising that relationships will likely suffer if we’re physically and emotionally spent. If you’re regularly making promises to those closest to you that—next month, or once this project is over, or after we get through the Christmas rush—everything will be better, then you may be perpetually living in the red zone.
Intellectual gauge: All of us likely have piles or shelves full of unread books; time management strains and intellectual fatigue may ensure they remain that way. But a profound indicator of operating in the red zone is whether we default to parroting old arguments and responses to challenging questions and situations, rather than investing in revisiting and reevaluating our perspective by engaging with new thoughts and ideas, especially those expressed by people from outside of our generation or culture.
When it comes time for a making presentation or composing a memo, do we just dust off previous content that’s been stored safely on the shelf, or do we take the opportunity to re-evaluate and re-engage afresh in what we think about what we do and how we do it? (Confession: this very blog post is based on a presentation I gave some years ago, and something very similar that I posted elsewhere more recently! Perhaps I’m in a bit of the red zone myself, currently?)
Spiritual gauge: While spirituality looks different for many people, if we’re in touch with ourselves we commonly have a sense of when we’re off-kilter, when something’s not right, when our lives have fallen out of balance.
From my own Christian perspective, I recall the letter to the church in Ephesus (recorded in Revelation 2) which rebukes the church for losing its first love. When our passion for God slips, when we abandon meaningful spiritual practices (worship, prayer, contemplation, Scripture-reading, serving others, etc.), we should take note. But even more so, you may be living in the red zone when your prayers become reduced to nothing but cries for help in desperation—devoid of any adoration or delight—and your worship is nothing other than thanksgiving—only thinking of God in terms of what He has done, rather than who He is. When our prayer and worship becomes simply “please and thank you” our red zone living may be skewing our view of God away from being a Person, a loving Father, and into nothing more than a survival mechanism, a way to facilitate our accomplishment of our overwhelming workload.
So how about it? How do your gauges read at the moment? Are you operating in the red zone? Periodic output at this level is understandable; but if the red zone characterizes your lifestyle, burnout and breakdown are sure to follow.
Our goal of excellent followership means contributing our very best, not merely in periodic bursts of spectacular performance, but living a lifestyle characterized by consistently, reliably, faithfully, diligently offering our talents, skills, and experience to the group’s endeavors.
A sports car may be awe-inspiring as it goes from 0 to 60mph in just a handful of seconds; but it’s not the preferred way for carrying the squad to the front lines, hauling lumber, or getting the kids to soccer practice week-in and week-out.
Let’s know ourselves and apply ourselves in the best way possible according to our unique design and ability. Then we’ll “be in the right place–emotionally, spiritually, mentally, volitionally (will/choices), and physically” (Embracing Followership, p.62) to make our most excellent contribution as followers.
For an explicitly Christian take on this topic, see 5 gauges to measure the pace of your ministry (ChurchCentral).
For a Christian perspective on the necessity of leaders to rest for the sake of their followers, see: “Leading with rest: how Sabbath impacts your community (ChurchCentral)”
For a Christian perspective on the challenge of rest, see “How to ensure you’ll never get to rest (ChurchCentral)”
For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following with excellence, see:
Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Kirkdale Press, Feb 2016)
Find other recommendations for various aspects of followership on our Resources page.
Links to other posts on this site: Blog Post Archive