I vividly remember searchlights waving in the night sky near our house. They were often used to attract attention to an opening, a premier, or a car dealership sale. I found them fascinating. Those old searchlights I saw were arc lamps which produced a white-hot light from an arc between two carbon electrodes.

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, said, “What is to give light must endure burning.” Granted, Frankl wasn’t thinking about the technology that has given us cold lighting methods; he was referencing candles, incandescent bulbs, and arc lights. More importantly, he was talking about human nature and behavior. 

Light illuminates. Light clarifies. Light drives out darkness. Pretty neat. But light takes energy, and what gives light is often consumed in the giving. The carbon rods in an arc lamp are slowly burned away in use.

Leadership is, in a way, light. Leaders illuminate, clarify, and drive out the confusion of darkness. Great leaders burn white-hot and give off a light that can be seen waving in the night sky like those searchlights when I was a kid. Also, like those arc lamps, leaders have a strong tendency to burn up.

We know, then, that great leaders are light givers. We also know that giving light consumes us or burns us out. How then do we continue to be light and not be burned up? There are many ways to add back the energy or material that is being consumed as we lead, but let’s look at just four significant ones.

Connection. We need to be connected to other people. Not cocktail-party-small-talk connection. Meaningful, deep, being known connection. It is often difficult for leaders to get this connection where they lead, so we must create it in other spaces. Connection isn’t complicated, but it takes significant time to happen. Make space for connection to occur and for it to be maintained.

Rest. Sleep is important, though science is now confirming that not everyone needs the same amount to function well. Rest in all forms is critical for rejuvenation to occur. Everything from small breaks within your day to long weekends where you leave work behind to longer vacations where you really unplug are all necessary for you to replace what is consumed as you lead.

Routine. Leaders often sacrifice their own daily schedules and lives to be super-available for those they serve. It’s a nice gesture and can sometimes be necessary, but, for the most part, our routines help us anchor ourselves and provide essential comfort for our emotional and mental well-being.

Mindfulness. Mindfulness leads to self-awareness. It is only by cultivating our ability to ascertain how we are doing (honestly) that we can take action and choose the things needed to make us healthy leaders. Learning that it is okay to turn down the light a little (or turn it off from time to time) so we can burn longer is a key to great leadership that lasts.

In Man’s Search For Meaning Frankl proposed (really, he insisted) that we only find meaning in life through work that is both creative in nature and aligned with a purpose greater than ourselves, through love—which often manifests itself in the service of others, and through suffering—which is fundamental to the human experience.

If you are leading for power, position, or possessions, it will not result in true meaning, and you will burn up like the carbon electrodes in those search lamps. However, if you see yourself as fulfilling a purpose that transcends your own wants and needs, if you find opportunities to serve rather than be served, and if you accept suffering and choose to change yourself rather than manipulate your surroundings, you can sustain a white-hot leadership without burning up—which is the Bison Way.