SACRIFICIAL OS: Good intentions gone wrong

I'm sorry, but I'm going to start this page with four distressing stories, because I want to ground us in the real suffering of real leaders...

Myrna's partner Max moved out. He told her, "You always come home stressed. All you do is complain. I get how terrible work is for you, but this isn't a relationship anymore."

Lisa told me, "I got so busy and had so little time for my friends that they wandered off. They stopped calling because I could never get together. So later when I really needed them, they were gone."

Martin said, "I'm a relationship person. I really want a partner. I hate living alone. But I'm here in the office so many hours, even on weekends, that I have no time to meet someone. Or on those rare days when I have the time, I don't have the energy. I just want to sleep."

Jeremy loved the organization he started. It was his baby. But it took everything he had. Then on a fall morning toward the end of his tenth year, he hit the wall. He couldn't make himself get out of bed and go in to work. The office called and he knew it was them but he didn't answer. It was stone cold over for him. He said, "I feel crazy loving so much something that hurts me so badly."

It's stories like these that make me say...

Sacrifice is the core tragedy of the nonprofit sector.

What takes my breath away is how sacrifice has managed to become such a powerful force that bright, supercapable people get trapped inside it. That they come to believe it's necessary to suffer deeply for the sake of their cause.

Now let's look at another dimension of the tragedy. There are times when leaders, not really understanding what they're doing, don't just hurt themselves, but sacrifice others in their well-intentioned drive to do good work...

Dana took over as ED of a dying community center, brought it back to life, and turned it into the heart and soul or her small town. Everyone loved it and told me stories of how much it meant to them, except for two people—Dana's daughters.

When I asked them what they thought about the Center, there was fire in their eyes. It took their mother from them not just five days a week, but weekends and holidays. The baby sitter was raising them.

And finally there's this, the exteme, which I debated including here, and wouldn't have except it's a true story and shows how very bad sacrifice can get...

Greg's doctor sat him down and warned him about his heart, telling him to slow his life down by at least 50%. But Greg's work meant the world to him. He was the leader of a national coalition. People all across the country counted on him. So he couldn't stop himself.

And even though they know about his heart problem, his colleagues couldn't stop themselves either. They kept asking Greg to do just this one thing more. Again and again, just one more thing.

And you know what's coming. Gregg had his heart attack and didn't survive it. And the sad thing is that he was so inspiring that even working at 50% time, or 25%, or 10%, he would have been a godsend to his movement. And sadder still, he left behind a wife and a child distraught, actually bitter, about losing him in this way.

Of course most sacrificial leaders don't suffer the extreme consequences. There's a milder version of sacrificial leadership, which I originally called Sacrificial Lite. But I've stopped using that term because even this lighter version is still a serious business.

So instead I call it Chronic Sacrifice, meaning that leaders can keep it going for a long time, sometimes even as long as a whole career. It's serious but stops short of going critical.

Some leaders have an amazing ability to tolerate suffering. It might sound like this...

I adapted. I managed myself so I never quite hit the wall. I was living in the burnout zone, but I kept it from hurting me so badly that I'd actually have to stop. It's like I made sacrifice sustainable, which is an oxymoron, but doable, because I did it.

Or this...

It was hard for people to tell I was leading sacrificially because I made it look good. But I was dragging. It was like having a constant low-grade sinus infection. You keep pushing yourself and you get some good results, but you never get to feel what it's like to be at your best. You never find out the kind of difference you could make if you were playing at the top of you game.

Or this....

I used to laugh at burnout. I'd tell people, "Hell, I've burnt out so many times that it's not a big deal anymore. I just give myself a kick in the butt and get going again."

Or this...

For 12 years I worked straight through without taking a whole week of vacation at one time. A long weekend was a big indulgence. And I felt secretly proud of that craziness. In the world of sacrifice it gave me big points. I've even heard people gasp with admiration when I told them about it.

And, sure, those 12 years make a good war story. But they didn't make a good life. I regret that I ever did that to myself. I so wish I could have those yeaers back.

All four of those quotes are me.

And I can tell you from personal experience, that the worst part of sacrifice is...

When we stop feeling it because it's become so familiar.

When we resign ourselves to it, because, "It just goes with the territory."

When we surrender and let it do its damage unopposed.


An unconscious system
What makes sacrifice such a force that it can successfully capture nonprofit leaders and keep them trapped for very long periods of time?

First, it's a system, a coherent, focused system. It's organized. It's not a random collection of happenstances.

Second, this system is mostly unconscious. If we could see it and feel it for what it is, most of us would not choose to keep sacrificing. And we would stop blaming ourselves for our distress and burnout. We would place the blame where it belongs, on an operating system that is inherently destructive.

Let's make an important distinction. Sacrifice as a short-term, situational strategy is not a serious problem. It's not at all the same thing as a consistent, long-term pattern of behavior that becomes your leadership style, even your lifestyle.

For example, say you find yourself caught in a convergence of deadlines in a particular week and you decide to work late every night. You miss out on a concert you wanted to go to, a movie with your friends, and three quiet evenings at home with your partner.

So you're sacrificing, but you know why you're doing it. You know this is the exception not the rule. There's no long-term damage. You accomplish your goals and at the end of the week you feel great about yourself. And next week maybe you'll give yourself some extra treats to make up for the big push you did this week.

Let's also note that sacrifice is not necessarily the same thing as working long hours. What matters is the quality of those hours. I remember back in the early years of Child Assault Prevention, the nonprofit my friend Kate and I started, when we were building our statewide network of projects, I worked very long hours seven days a week...

But I was having the time of my life.

You would have had to tie me to a chair to keep me from doing what I was doing. I was meeting so many great people. I was making the difference that mattered to me most. What could have been better?

Then we got our state funding and the bureaucracy demanded an impossible number of service units. They actually told us they knew they were breaking our budgets, but they wanted us to try it anyway and see what happened.

What happened was this...

Suddenly we were drowning in what we had once loved.

And now we were working under forced, permanent sacrificial conditions and it took a serious toll on all of us.

So when I talk about sacrifice what I mean is that...

You're sacrificing parts of your life that really matter to you.

You're sacrificing your very self.

You're suffering core injury.

Sacrifice as an operating system doesn't just allow bad things to happen, it actually...

Generates bad things.

That's what it does, it generates them.

Next let's look at the elements that power this system and make it endure.


Sacrificial saviors
We don't start sacrificing because we're dummies. We do it because we care so much. Here's how I think it goes for many of us...

I see people hurting. I see the planet in danger. My need to respond is so urgent that I decide to jump in and do anything and everything I can to stop the hurting and end the danger.

I feel desperate to fix things right now.

And I see there are not nearly enough people doing this work. I look at my society and see that it's mass producing suffering faster than we nonprofits can possibly keep up with. Even if we doubled or tripled the number of nonprofits, that still wouldn't be enough.

So I feel I have to do double duty or triple duty. Or more.

Notice that word "desperate." It's got despair inside it, and despair is never a good place from which to make decisions.

Now let's sum this operating system up in a one-sentence story...

I'm sacrificing myself to save you.


I'm sacrificing myself to save the world.

While the impulse behind this story is honorable...

Saving people is the opposite of leading them.

Leading means inspiring people and rallying them and preparing them and developing them so they're empowered to take action of their own on behalf of themselves and their communities.

What happens when a community becomes dependent on a savior-leader? That sets up a serious co-dependency and we know what a disaster co-dependency is for everyone involved.

Back in the days when I was still entranced by savior strategies, a friend who was worried about me told me this...

Richard, child abuse is not your problem. It belongs to the community. You and your organization, even the statewide movement you've built, even all of those people working together, are not enough to stop child abuse in California.

The problem is just too big. You cannot solve it by yourself so you should not own it by yourself.

What you can do is lead. Instead of taking the problem off the shoulders of the community, make sure they feel it. Challenge them. Call them to action. Make sure they take responsibility for their own future.

Help the community discover within itself the power to respond to the problem.

I think we could just as easily call the sacrificial operating system the...

Salvation operating system.

Because sacrificial leaders are operating as...

Sacrificial saviors.

We could say that sacrificial leadership comes from...

Too much caring.

But I think it's more accurate to say that a sacrificial leader is someone who...

Cares passionately,

And their caring is good and lovely and needed, but then with the best of intentions, they...

Adopt the wrong strategy.

And there's no shame in picking the wrong strategy, not given all the forces in our society and in our sector which push us to adopt the wrong strategy.

But there is sorrow in it.


The added problem of personal history
Some leaders do not have a sacrificial background. They get caught in sacrifice only once they become immersed in the default culture of the nonprofit sector.

But there are those of us who grew up on sacrificial-savior strategies, and so our childhood issues dovetail with and reinforce the sacrificial culture of nonprofits, and puts us in deep trouble. It seems to me that people with this kind of background are drawn to nonprofit service in especially large numbers because of the cultural match.

Let me use myself as an example to explain what I mean. I grew up in a family and a Calvinist church community where the rule was...

Don't expect to be loved for who you are. You're supposed to earn love.

Do enough things to please the people you depend on and then you might—there's no guarantee—but you might be loved like you want to be loved.

I was a kid who paid attention to the rules, so as I grew up I got very, very good at pleasing people. Need a nice guy to listen to you? Call on me. Got a problem? Let me solve it. The world's in trouble? I want to be the one to save it.

But as you know, this strategy doesn't work...

Because love that you have to earn is not real love.

It doesn't satisfy. It leaves you so hungry that you keep chasing the impossible.

And it's a sacrificial strategy. You have to sacrifice parts of yourself to win approval. You can't be too sad, you can't be too happy, you can't be...a kid.

Now, of course there are people who put away their childhood strategies when childhood is over. But I took my mistaken hope of earning love right along with me into adulthood where I could act it out on a bigger stage.

My motivating fear was...

If I'm not the savior, I'm nobody.

And this caused me no end of grief.

I think this is where the founder's syndrome often comes from, too. The merging of the person into the work. The work becomes everything and the person is only of value through the work. Notice the underlying theme of sacrifice.

And so to de-merge yourself from the work feels like death. Which is where the extreme feelings and troublesome acting out comes from.

The drive to save oneself by saving others is one of the things that makes leaders lonely at the top when what they really want is connection and company.


Putting the work first
Under the sacrificial-savior operating system, we make this fateful decision...

To put the work first.

And what's our work? To care about people in need and make their lives better. To care about our communities and our nation and make a better tomorrow in all the different ways nonprofits do that. So what's not to like?

Well, the problem comes when putting the work first means...

Putting the people who do the work second.

And of course we don't decide this consciously. The first part, yes. We consciously focus tremendous energy on the work and give it everything we've got.

But the second part of the decision, I believe, happens unconsciously. Without thinking about it, we let the needs of the people who do the work, including ourselves, drift further into the background.

And the problem is that under the sacrificial system, when we put the work first that means the people doing the work get hurt.

Which then means, perversely, that...

The work is going to get hurt.

So the irony is this...

The only way for our work to win is to put it second.

And why is this so? Because of one simple fact...

The work depends on the people who do it.

Every time I've seen a leader take their nonprofit from sacrificing to sustaining to soaring, I've seen the work they do just gets better and better. Remarkably better.

That doesn't mean, though, that I think you should treat your work with a casual attitude. If you're doing work you believe in, you absolutely get to be passionate about it and take it to heart, as long as...

You take yourself and your staff even more to heart.


The poison spreads
Sacrificial leadership doesn't just hurt the leader, it hurts everyone who comes under the influence of that operating system, from teams to organizations to movements.

Sacrifice means that...

Core needs do not get met.

And this...

Causes distress.

Of course there are a lot of needs staff have that can't get met at work. So I want to be clear that I'm talking here about staff getting what they need in order to play at the top of their game as they carry out the mission. For example, they need a staff culture that brings out the best in them instead of dragging them down into the grungy worst.

Now, what happens if essential needs of the staff are not taken care of? Then distress pushes the mission aside and takes over as the organizing, driving center of the life of the organization.

And what do we humans do with our distress when we don't know what to do with it?

We start acting in.

Which means we turn blame, shame, judgment, and anger against ourselves. And maybe that drives us down into depression. And maybe we isolate ourselves.


We start acting out.

Which means we turn blame, shame, judgment, and anger against other people, demanding that they make everything okay for us, and if they don't then we feel justified in tearing them down.

Both acting in and acting out are really bad for relationships of any kind, including our working relationships. And both of these unfortunate strategies are very much a part of the sacrificial operating system—but they are very much not a part of the sustaining and soaring systems.

And here's the tricky thing. The symptoms of sacrifice often look like something else.

It might seem like someone is just having a bad day. But why are they having so many bad days, and why are there so many people in the organization having so many bad days?

It might seem like there's a personality problem between two staff that sets them fighting with each other, but why do they feel permission to engage in really bad behavior at work?

It might seem that one of your Board members just has a negative personality. But why does the rest of the Board let him get away with saying unfair, hurtful things to you again and again?

When trouble happens, it might just be an isolated incident.

But if you trace troublesome incidents back to their source, you might discover they're all being fueled or permitted by the same underlying sacrificial distress which has taken over the organizational culture.

And that means all these different incidents are really the same kind of trouble, the sacrificial kind. For example...

Every time there's a disagreement in a staff meeting, it's like the match meets the gasoline. Seemingly insignificant issues trigger giant reactions.

Your staff has divided itself into factions and you spend way too much time trying to mediate and calm things down. The daily distress owns you emotionally and kills your spirit, so when you go out to meet with a funder, you can hardly smile let alone be genuinely enthusiastic about your organization.

A staff person develops a blind hatred toward you. Overnight you've become the enemy and you don't understand why and you can't get him to shake loose from his obsession. You try reasoning, you try being nice, you try being understanding, and not only do these attempts not work, they make things worse.

A staff person looks at you and sees his parents. He may be in his 30s or 40s, but emotionally he's reliving adolescent rebellion. Every time he looks at you, you feel a wave of disgust coming from him and washing over you.

One of your staff has basically stopped talking to you. You ask her how she's doing and she says she's fine, but she doesn't look at you when she says it and you never see her smiling anymore. She used to be so animated, but now it's like she's faded to gray. Sometimes you see her in her cubicle with her head down on her desk. She doesn't go to lunch with anyone anymore. And she doesn't speak up in staff meetings. Whatever's going on at any particular time, she stays out of it.

One of your staff, the one you've decided to fire because she spends more time gossiping than working, thinks she should be the ED because in her view you're a total loss. You find out that everywhere she goes in the community she trashes you, subtly or blatantly depending on who she's talking to. Now you really want to fire her, but your Board chair tells you not to because she's the daughter of an old friend of his.

The founder of your organization, who is still on the Board, is unhappy with you and finds something to criticize you about in every meeting, not because you're failing as ED, but because you're five times more successful than he ever was.

The economy is really bad. Your staff get scared, then they get angry at you because you have to lay someone off, even though it's the one sour goof-off who everyone knows was doing nothing of value anyway. The staff expects you to work magic with money and keep them from ever having to worry about their future. No amount of reasoning seems to touch their freak out. Nothing settles them down. You get mad and tell them, "Just wait till you're a leader someday, and then you'll see what it feels like." They roll their eyes.

All of these situations are symptoms of a system. There's no marquee over the door of a troubled nonprofit that says, "Beware! Sacrificial Operating System in effect here!" You have to know how to read the signs so that you can see the deeper underlying problem.

Sometimes you do that in retrospect, like Omar....

Over the past six months, I've upgraded our operating system from sacrificial to sustainable. It's been really intense, but it's really worked. And now what I see is that so many things that stumped me in the past were features of sacrifice. They were part of that system.

And how do I know? Because they're gone now. For example, there used to be this attitude in the air that it was okay to zitz people as long as you followed it with a smile. Quick, sharp put downs but then everyone would pretend it was nothing.

I didn't like it but here's the thing, I didn't address the zitzing at all during the transition. Yet the more sustainable we got, the less of it there was. And now the put downs are gone. We're all doing so well now that we're buzzing like happy bees. No need to ever think of stinging anyone anymore.


Two metaphors which serve as warnings
If you see either of these things happening in your organization, it's time for an immediate and radical upgrade of your OS.


The Nonprofit Soap Opera
It goes like this...

Feelings are flying around all day every day. Nothing happens without drama. Fear is in the air. People get their feelings hurt constantly. The work takes second place—if any place at all. And like in a TV soap opera, this state of affairs continues relentlessly with no end in sight because in a soap opera, the one thing no one ever does is to change the operating system.

Some individuals might wake up and see what's going on, but the community as a whole does not wake up. That's why we can count on another painful episode of the drama tomorrow. And that's one reason why soap operas are so emotionally compelling.

Now it's true that there are fans who watch the soap operas on TV who actually learn important things about human interactions from all those miscommunications, betrayals, and evil schemes. And they learn, too, from watching how love sometimes triumphs in the middle of the emotional mess.

But watching a soap opera is very different from living inside one.

Feelings are the stock-in-trade of soap operas, so let's zero in on them for a moment. Of course we want to acknowledge that feelings are good things when they're connecting us with each other in loving ways. And mastering emotional intelligence is certainly a key part of leadership and team building.

But it's also true that....

Feelings by themselves are not enough to make a relationship work. The purpose of feelings, as Marshall Rosenberg says, is to point to needs. If needs are getting met, chances are we're happy and feel distress to set in.

So it's of the utmost importance that we always ground our working relationships in real needs instead of listening to the siren song of distessed feelings.

The sacrificial operating system uses people up, exhausts them. It doesn't take care of people...

It doesn't meet their needs.

And there is no hope that it ever will meet their needs because sacrifice just simply can't do that.

And right there is the set up for serious trouble. And then it's no wonder that people get to feeling a little desperate. And it's no wonder that they start acting out, trying to get their needs met in some indirect way. And then indirect, unhappy, distressed feelings start filling up their days crowding out the work.

And that's when an organization might fall into the "eternal processing of feelings." People are trying to find a solution. They are trying to make things better. But they don't have a prayer as long as they are operating within the sacrificial context because there's no solution apart from...

Upgrading to an operating system that nurtures people and grows them—meets their needs—while they do their work.


The Perfect Storm
When feelings start going in circles those circles can turn tornado vicious.

What happens when all the worst elements of sacrificial culture all come together at once? You might get more than a swirling vortex of dramatic dysfunction. You might end up with...

Force five relational aggression.

Which can happen when staff are...

Desperate for attention.

Posturing like victims.

Gossiping to slam others.

Poisoning reputations.

Engaging in emotional bullying.

Hurting others as deeply as they can.

Setting person against person and group against group.

Once a perfect storm gets going, you have hell to pay. And people pay in a deeply personal way.

That's the thing about relational aggression, it's so personal.

Sometimes it's one person who gets targeted. Sometimes the staff splits into warring factions which go after each other. In the days before I knew better, I was in some of those battles myself. I hated them but I was in them.

What I remember most is the apocalyptic urgency, how one side was noble—my side—and the other side was evil, and nothing mattered more than smacking them down.

I wish I had know then what I know now. When I look back on those times what I see is good people with good hearts on both sides hurting each other so badly. And for what? I can't think of a single thing that was gained by all that pain.

And sometimes a battle gets so bad that people never really get over it. Decades later a memory triggers and you feel like you're right back in the middle of it.

As a coach, I've helped leaders put a stop to perfect storms and I know how hard it is to bring an organization back to safe ground. That's why I'm so intense about prevention.

And really, the life of the organization is at stake here. I've seen some nonprofits go down because a storm of relational aggression took hold and nobody could stop it. In other cases it's years before a nonprofit recovers it productivity and health.

So I urge you, if you ever see any two elements of the perfect storm showing up together, in fact, if you ever see even one element, stop everything immediately and do whatever it takes to get your organization back on track. It's really that serious.


Breaking free
If sacrifice were the best we could do, then I'd say let's just shut the sector down, because it's not okay to hurt people like this.

But of course, it's not the best we can do.

Sacrifice has a way of making you...

Forget who you are.

So if you're trying to break free of sacrifice, here are some things you can do...

Remember who you are.
Listen to what's deepest in your heart...

No! I will not live like this anymore.

No! I will not keep hurting myself.

No! Sacrifice is not me.

It doesn't matter how good the cause is—NO!

Look beyond what is to what's possible...

In my first coaching session with Marybeth, an ED caught in sacrifice, she said with such sadness in her voice, "This is not the right path for me. I'm failing. I want you to help me transition out. I don't have what it takes to be a leader."

I replied, "Sacrifice is not a true test of leadership because sacrificing is the opposite of leading.

"Leading is not about being lonely at the top. It's not about you going down to keep the ship afloat. It's not about suffering. Or feeling like a failure."

Then I said, "Please don't quit yet. Give yourself some time. Let's get you into sustainable mode and then you can decide if you like leading or not.

"And by the way, I'm so glad you're not a success at sacrificial leadership. It's a terrible thing to succeed at."

Marybeth did give it time. She did the work that it took, and it was serious work, to upgrade her operating system. And then...

She fell in love with leading.

Everyone could see her talent for it. It was unmistakable. What a shame it would have been if she had walked away in defeat.

Claim who you are.
Lydia told me:

Once I got solidly into the soaring zone and things were going consistently well for me, I suddenly had the feeling that I didn't belong to my old group anymore. The other EDs I used to hang out with spent most of their time complaining.

But I didn't have anything to complain about. I started getting the feeling they weren't all that comfortable having me around. It definitely wasn't as much fun for me. And I was torn. It was like I had moved on, yet didn't want to move on without them.

Georgette actually said, "You're a curve wrecker." I think she meant it as a joke, but there was an edge to her voice. And what I remember from my school days is that nobody likes a curve wrecker.

Sometimes I still feel little tugs, like maybe I should go back to my old ways in order to fit back in. But really, would I give up this soaring thing to get back with my old group? Not for a minute.

With my staff and Board now, I have such deep connections that I never feel lonely. And I wouldn't give that up, not for anything.

I still care about my old friends, but I can't afford to be part of a community of suffering. What I need now is to find other leaders who want to build a community of success.

Stay true to who you are.
Everything I've been saying in this section about breaking free is about taking a stand for yourself. Which means making every decision and taking every action based on what matters most to you. And not letting yourself be backed off from that.

A change as big as quitting sacrifice doesn't begin with easy steps...

First you take your stand.

Then you take your steps.

And they're challenging steps. And they have to be the right ones. I'm not talking about things like this...

If I just take one more time management workshop, I'll get things under control.

If I read one more book on leadership, I'll find the answer.

If I get caught up just once, then I can stay caught up.

If I just get better at multi-tasking, it'll all work out.

I told myself such fairy tales a hundred times. I kept working harder and harder to solve the problem of working too hard. Understandable, but crazy.

You can't break free of the sacrificial operating system by using sacrificial strategies.

The sustainable and soaring operating systems are based on taking a stand for yourself. That's their core. That's why they're the exit from sacrifice.

Now, what if you're feeling discouraged about your leadership? What if you're looking ahead and you see you've got quite a ways to go to get free of sacrifice? What if the journey seems daunting...

But you really, really want to be free.

And you really, really want to go soaring.

Well, if that's what's in your heart...

Then that's who you are.

And that means your spirit can go soaring right now. It can lead you forward. And then the rest of you can have the fun of catching up with you as you zoom ahead into your future.



Next you might want to check out other pages that are part of the OS constellation:

OS for leaders
The overview of the operating systems.

This is the vital sign of your leadership.

This grows you and keeps on growing you.

This makes you exponentially more effective.

The peak moments of premier leadership


© 2008  Rich Snowdon