The burned-out geek leader

I’ve been thinking recently about different types of leaders.  Or at least of different of types of behaviors that leaders might exhibit.  If I keep thinking about it, this may well turn into a series.  If I stop thinking about it, however, I reserve the right to change topics.

2007 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Burnout.
Image via Wikipedia

The first one that I thought I’d tackle is the burned-out geek leader.  Some signs your geek leader is burned out include…

  • She can’t remember much.
  • She seems to not pay attention to what’s going on unless it’s right in front of her face – she’s detached and unfocused.
  • She’s behind in email (well, more behind than usual).
  • She becomes obsessed with something that seems relatively insignificant – she has a very one-track mind (seems like a control issue).

I think that pretty much every leadership state has its pros and cons (even this one).


  • If your manager is burned out, you get to pretty much just do your job.  Unless you’re working on that one thing with which she’s obsessed, she’ll just leave you alone.
  • You have a chance to shine by keeping things running while she doesn’t have the mental wherewithal to deal with them.


  • Getting a substantive answer about anything is pretty much next to impossible.
  • If you try to keep things running and fail, you have a very good chance of being thrown under the bus.
  • Finding her is tough; she could be crazy in meetings or off hiding.
  • You have to continuously hound her in order to get anything done (e.g., my vacation begins tomorrow, can you please approve it now?).
  • There’s some chance that she’ll give you short-sighted or distracted answers (“Just do this and leave me alone.”) for which you’ll pay later, either personally or professionally.

I thought I’d give an example of this last point from my life.  As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I once went through two water disasters in five days (waterfalls in the server room).  We – that is, my team, my boss, and I – were all operating in a state of extreme burn-out.  During a conversation about the damage, my boss told me to get a second replacement Storage Area Network (SAN), and when I questioned the order (saying that I wasn’t sure that insurance would cover it), he snapped at me and told me to just get it.  Fast forward a few months, and it turns out that the insurance company would pay for the first SAN, but not the second.

So what do you do with a burned-out boss? (Full disclosure: this is how I like my team to deal with me when I’m burned out).

  • Keep things running.  She will adore you for that.
  • Do your best to get answers, but make sure you need the answers before hounding her.  Don’t hound her for an answer that could have waited, and don’t waste her attention.
  • If you have a good relationship with her, encourage her to take some time away.  Maybe it seems like working all weekend will make the next week easier, but chances are that working all weekend will only exacerbate the burn-out and make the next week even worse.  Working without a break massively decreases efficiency, especially for folks who are burned out.

What other behaviors characterize a burned out leader?  What are other coping methods that work?