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I quit tech to become a chaplain, and returned a more empathetic leader

Burned out and facing a health scare, this top cybersecurity strategist took a leap of faith and left to study theology and minister to others.

I quit tech to become a chaplain, and returned a more empathetic leader
[Photo: Richie Lim/Unsplash]

There’s a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that you might be familiar with: the leap of faith. Indiana Jones is standing on a ledge in a cave and needs to cross to the other side, over a drop-off. According to his map, there’s a bridge that will appear in order for him to reach the other side. However, no bridge is visible. It takes a “leap of faith,” or blind trust, that even though he can’t see the way across, the bridge will appear and get him there.

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A lot of moments in life require a similar leap of faith and stepping into the unknown with hopes that eventually, you’ll get where you need to go. I have firsthand experience with this. After facing severe physical manifestations of burnout, including mono meningitis and loss of use of my left arm, it felt like the right moment to quit my job as a cybersecurity executive. Chaplaincy was a bucket list item and something I knew I always wanted to do. At that moment in time, I realized it was now or never. I took the leap and became a chaplain. 

Looking back, it’s easy to say that this was the right choice for my own health and career, but at the time, it was daunting to not see or know the path forward. I now understand that there were many personal lessons I had to learn, but hadn’t realized I needed to.

After spending three years as a chaplain, receiving my master’s degree in theology, and completing 2,000 supervised clinical hours of training in trauma and palliative care, I decided to return to the cybersecurity field with a fresh perspective and renewed sense of purpose. The biggest takeaways from my leap of faith revolve around two attributes that are essential to leadership: empathy and vulnerability. 

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Understanding True Empathy

One of the first things I did as a chaplain, without any training, was sit in rooms with patients and simply be with them. The goal of this training was to gain a better understanding of empathy. You are with a complete stranger who is in crisis or in pain, and your job is to sit with them in that moment. Your job is not to be the fixer, nor to comfort or address their pain, it’s just to be present. As someone who has always been a doer, this was extremely difficult for me.

Empathy is a crucial leadership attribute and one that is even more necessary today amid a global pandemic, social justice movements, and everything else that plays into how someone may be feeling and showing up to work. To be able to sit with a colleague or a direct report that is facing an issue—whether within the workplace or within their personal life—and tell them, “I really don’t know what to say, but I am here for you” speaks volumes. The other piece of the empathy puzzle that’s critical for leaders is being able to reframe situations. It requires listening to someone, understanding they are viewing a situation a certain way, and offering up different points of view. There’s a saying that wisdom comes from turning the window we are looking through, and it rings true. The more we turn and reframe our perspective, the more wisdom we come away with. These lessons on empathy were fundamental to my shift from cybersecurity executive to chaplain.

Be Brave Enough to Be Vulnerable

Oftentimes, we have ideas of what leaders are and what they must be in order to succeed: strong, unfazed, stoic. While these traits can be helpful to a certain extent, I’ve learned that vulnerability is a key attribute as well. An accomplished leader who is able to step forward, be vulnerable, and not be afraid to come off as weak holds a lot of power. It demonstrates to those who think they are the only ones struggling or facing challenging moments, whether at work or in life, that they are not alone in what they are feeling. They, too, can go through hardships and come out stronger.

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I’ve been honest about my experience with burnout and why I felt the need to leave the cybersecurity industry. I’ve used my voice to help others going through similar situations, but it has required an immense amount of vulnerability and willingness to be open about the struggles I faced. 

Burnout is a prevalent issue right now, especially in my industry. In fact, a recent report found that 51% of security professionals experienced extreme stress or burnout, and 65% said they have considered leaving their job because of it. As far as the tech industry in general goes, one survey reported that 72% of tech and IT workers said they intend to quit within the next year. For leaders to effectively address widespread burnout, especially amid the Great Resignation, you must show your vulnerable side in order to truly connect and share ways to cope. 

Embracing the Unknown

We often feel like we need to have a plan and have it all laid out in order to succeed in our lives and careers—but this isn’t true, and I’m a prime example of it. I followed an inner voice, which was deep inside my heart, telling me to go into the chaplaincy. Whether it’s starting a new career, becoming a leader, or learning new ways to lead in uncertain times, there are a lot of unknowns we will need to embrace and expectations we will need to let go of. Suspend the disbelief that you have to know all the answers. Take the leap of faith.  

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Karen Worstell is senior cybersecurity strategist for VMware, a cloud computing and virtualization technology company.


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