Do You Have an “Oil Can” Problem?

by Joan Garry

Here are my thoughts about how to lead when the adrenaline of 2020 wears off and how to fix what I like to call your “oil can” problem.

One aspect of 2020 that I think is overlooked is that the year brought out the adrenaline junkie that lives at or just below the surface of every nonprofit leader. The fixer, the problem solver, the person prepared to do whatever it takes.

My clients and members of our Nonprofit Leadership Lab are heroic every day but never more than the 365 days (or if you are a musical theatre fan, 525,600 minutes) of 2020. (Yes, I realize 2020 was a leap year, but I refuse to give it any more days. 2020 was long enough!)

You fixed, you problem solved, you leaped tall buildings in single bounds (nod to your Superman tendencies).

How are you feeling right about now?

A few months into a year in which you are probably feeling more optimistic (nothing like seeing ‘shots in arms’ to offer a shot in the arm for all of us).

But you’re really really tired right?

My daughter Kit had febrile seizures as a toddler that demanded an ambulance and an E.R. visit. Fortunately she grew out of them after age 3 but when they happened, they were scary as hell and we did whatever it took to keep Kit calm.

Not just Kit – her twin brother and her older sister too. We tried our best to keep calm while Kit’s seizure was on full display. We learned the drill and an ice bath in the E.R. settled things down quickly. We’d head home.

And Kit was all smiles, we’d tuck her into bed. And then Eileen (my wife) and I would fall totally and completely apart.

But not before having some kind of argument with each other about who knows what. Or going way overboard, criticizing our other kids about something that could barely qualify as inappropriate or even worth noting.

I see this behavior in my clients. Lots of misbehavior, uncivilized behavior towards one another, lots of misdirected anger. The craziness at home is now beginning to feel even more intolerable now that we can see glimmers of light about where 2021 might end.

It’s like me and Eileen after Kit was tucked into bed all smiles.

We were big ol’ messes.

I have some advice. Definitely not about parenting. But about how to lead when the adrenaline rush wears off. And about what I call an “oil can” problem.


I think people may not be seeing what I am seeing, especially boards.

Executive directors exhale ever so slightly and they are kind of crumbling. And it’s not just exhaustion. It’s about having a short fuse – with your kids, your colleagues, maybe even the board.

It is not a sign of weakness to bring your team together and own it. And have folks talk about it. Everyone has a personal story to mirror my own. As an executive director, use mine or one of your own to frame what’s happening.

Agree to treat each other with a measure of grace. Brainstorm ideas of what to do when the fatigue gremlins take over and you can feel that you are going to lose your temper. Try to create a conversation that allows people the space to say that this is all real AND to come up with strategies.

I myself like ‘buzzwords’ and key phrases that almost add humor. For example, in our house we don’t talk about being “hangry” (when someone is cranky b/c they are hungry).

Instead, we grabbed a phrase from The Wizard of Oz when the Tin Man is discovered and his mouth is rusted shut. The joy he feels to be able to open his mouth and talk thanks to a simple oil can is palpable. So at our house, we don’t say that people are “hangry” because it feels judgy.

We ask “are you having an oil can problem?

It injects humor and also leads that person to the fridge.


I am encouraging every executive director to meet with his or her leadership team (or staff if the group is small). The goal is to focus on what you learned during your year as full-on adrenaline junkies. Frame the conversation with these simple questions to consider:

  • What strengths did your team rely on to make remarkable things happen?
  • What did you learn about vulnerabilities that presented obstacles to your efforts?
  • What did you do differently in 2020 that you believe would be of benefit to the organization to continue doing in 2021 and beyond?


My team recently worked with a facilitator on an assessment tool called StandOut – Marcus Buckingham is the brains behind it. I’ve done lots of these but this one stood out (sorry).

Their definition of strength and weakness has a powerful twist. They look at a strength as something that strengthens you and a weakness as something that weakens you.

And to bring the point home you fill out two lists for a few days. Activities that you love (that strengthen you) and activities you loathe (that weaken you).

It’s an easy exercise to ask your team to do. And at this time, for this purpose, try this. Meet and talk about the lists. And then have everyone commit to ensure that there are one or more “LOVE IT” activities on their lists every day for a week.

Then revisit. LOVE IT activities put gas in your tank – they fuel you. We all need that.


Really? Yes really. Time to take a lesson from the playbook of my mother’s bridge club.

My mom (of blessed memory) played bridge at least weekly until several weeks before she passed away. It was the Wednesday crowd. She was 89 but not the oldest – Madeline was in her mid 90s.

And make no mistake – this was a sharp group. Smart, well informed, funny. And yes, they all had medical problems. Sharing those with kindred spirits who may have the same ailment was affirming.

So they’d gather and doctor appointments, MRIs, bloodwork and new aches and pains would become the centerpiece of conversation. Until they all got fed up with themselves.

And so they came up with a new rule. 10 minutes of doc talk and then on to bridge. After that, conversation could go in any direction except their own health concerns. Usually at the 10 minute mark, they’d have a good laugh about how ridiculous it all was and then that chapter of conversation closed and it was on to whatever was on folks’ minds. Or maybe just the lousy bridge hand.

I thought that was pretty smart and swell.

A client told me that she was having a hard time getting folks to stop talking / sharing / complaining about child care, spouses, and the personal issues that are real and growing harder and harder to navigate with each passing day. She didn’t want to shut it down; she understood that she needed to make space for this personal sharing but wondered how she could set limits. I told her my mom’s story.

I suggest that you tell the Wednesday Bridge Club Story at the next team meeting and come up with a set of guidelines for sharing that allow for without consuming everyone and setting a dark tone for the entire meeting.


Hope you find these ideas helpful.

And given the challenging nature of my relationship with my mom, I know my mom would be gobsmacked that I often share her good advice with my readers. Makes me smile.

So how about you? Any good ideas for overcoming the oil can problem?

Stay safe.

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