Leadership is a choice. And no matter what the experience level of a leader, the willingness to choose will define them. Once a leader reaches the state where they can't make leadership decisions, they cease to be a leader.
Priorities affect a leader's willingness to choose. During my Army years, I was single. I had no dependents. When I deployed, I was not worried about missing time with a wife or children, or worse yet, leaving behind a widow and fatherless children. I and some of my younger soldiers had a cavalier attitude toward death; we used to smoke cigarettes with abandon because we did not worry about long term health as much as living through the next day. I still reflect back on the soldiers I served with that did have families and look on them with awe. I can't imagine how different I might have approached my job, particularly the risks, if I had a family waiting on me. It is easy to suppose it may have changed my personal priorities enough to impact my ability to make personal sacrifices. An unwillingness to sacrifice will compromise a leader's ability to lead.
Burnout affects leaders too. Burnout can be caused by boredom and repetition, or from extreme stress. I have experienced both.
I have been in jobs where boredom affected me. Days could be issue-free and drag on, rendering me listless. And when an issue did occur, all I could think about was the inconvenience of breaking my routine to deal with it. I could feel it, complacency was creeping up on me. I had to get more engaged on the floor, find constructive things to do, and stay active throughout a work day. That way I could take issues in stride, and I was warmed up and ready to deal with them.
Stress is a killer. As an Infantry officer, my responsibilities included overseeing training, planning missions, and leading troops in combat. If I fell short on any of the three, I could be faced with a situation where mission failure or the loss of life would be a direct consequence. That knowledge drove me to push both myself and my soldiers hard. The stress could be staggering; sometimes I could not sleep for days leading up to a mission. I lay awake agonizing over the details. Did I train my troops enough? Was my plan good enough? Had I thought about all of the contingencies? The actual mission was often less stressful than the lead up. At that point, the die had already been cast for many of the most troubling questions. But I have been in a situation where I had made an incorrect turn while leading a convoy through Baghdad. I prayed that my mistake would not cost anyone their lives. Specifically, I remember praying that if someone did die, that it would be me. When I left the Army, it felt strange to not have decisions that weighed so heavy.
But then the hardest leadership job is one that I cannot walk away from and is arguably more stressful and more important than any job that I have ever had. And it is one shared by many. Being a parent is a leadership position. Parents have to model behavior for their children every day. They have to find ways to positively influence their children and teach them right from wrong; to teach them in ways that also teaches the children to be independent. Every day as a parent I have to remind myself that I have to make the right choices in how I respond to my children, especially when things are going bad.
I always have to remember, it is not what happens that matters. It is how I choose to handle it that counts.