Leading is challenging. It demands your full attention and involves your best decision-making. At any given time, it takes energy and stamina to interact with people and it takes patience and compassion to care for them. To lead effectively, you not only have to care for the people around you, but you have to care for yourself.
Yet, it has been my experience that when work piles up and time is short, self-care is the first thing to go. I understand that putting work ahead of self-care usually comes from a good place.
You want to do as much good as possible, so you put forth your best effort. The problem comes when you constantly put pressing priorities ahead of your wellbeing. For most leaders, when you do not care for yourself, you cannot expect others to care for you.
When you do not care for yourself, you become tired, stressed, and angry. And over time you develop habits that lead to relational difficulties and health problems. You not only suffer your own poor health, but you contribute to the poor health of the people entrusted to your care. It has been my experience that managing your health is a key component of being an effective leader.
Putting Yourself First
Think of it this way. Every time you fly, you hear the standard pre-flight announcements. One of those announcements is the Oxygen Mask Rule: “Should the cabin lose pressure; oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area. Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.”
I confess that as a leader in a helping profession, it seems strange that I would put myself before others. What could possibly be wrong with helping others first?
In the case of the airplane, oxygen masks are deployed in situations where the oxygen level has dropped dangerously low. Without your oxygen mask, you will lose consciousness. If putting on your mask is not your first priority, you will likely not be able to help anyone.
Your Self-Care as a Leader
It is the same with your self-care as a leader. It is natural that you want to be helpful. It is who you are. You devote energy to confronting the challenges, maintaining relationships, and finding solutions. It is all in a day’s work. But in many cases, your involvement comes at the expense of your own physical, emotional, and mental health.
Now, I am not saying you should not get involved. You are the leader.
What I am saying is, you have to manage your health just as you manage your leadership skills.
When your involvement leaves little time for anything else, you experience burnout. I know that burnout is a negative term, and we do not like using negative terms. So, let me say it another way. When your involvement leaves little time for anything else, you experience exhaustion, frustration, and anger, along with feeling ineffective, helpless, or hopeless. You experience burnout.
Caring for yourself is essential in avoiding burnout. Your self-care is key to your physical, emotional, and mental health. It requires intentional planning. If you do not make self-care part of your leadership, you will not be able to care for others.
Your Health as Leader
So, what contributes to your health as a leader? If you look at yourself as a whole person, there are four areas that need your attention: physical health, emotional health, mental health, and spiritual health. These areas are so interrelated that a deficiency in one will affect the well-being of the others.
Let’s look first at physical health.
Being physically healthy is essential for effective and courageous leadership. Your physical health depends upon good nutrition, physical exercise, and rest. While regular activity is essential, allowing your body to rest is just as important. While getting enough rest is critical, good eating habits are just as important. Another way to say it is, when you are tired, you are more likely to eat unhealthy food and to exercise less.
So, eat a well-balanced diet. Engage in regular physical activity.
If you are not going to the gym to work out, engage in walking, biking, or swimming. Get at least 7 hours of sleep in a quiet, dark environment. Turn the television, as well as computers and iPhones off. Remember, you are responsible for your own well-being.
Your effectiveness as a leader depends upon it.
Now, let’s look at emotional Health: Having a healthy awareness of your emotions is essential for effective and courageous leadership. Your emotions help you to seek out meaningful experiences, avoid danger and embarrassment. Just as they can be a helpful source of information, they can also be misleading. It is important to know and understand your emotions.
Learn to recognize and acknowledge what triggers your anger and what pushes you to disengage in group interaction. Name what you are feeling. Give yourself permission to feel it. This will help you become more responsive as opposed to reactive to the people around you and the situation you are in.
Whether it is a feeling in the pit of your stomach or an increased heart rate, you can keep your cool and stay engaged. When you find yourself emotionally out of balance, try one of the following activities: take a walk in fresh air, use positive self-talk, eat healthy food, listen to music that makes you happy, spend time with someone you enjoy. You are responsible for your own well-being. Your effectiveness as a leader depends upon it.
What about mental health? Being mentally healthy is essential for effective and courageous leadership. It affects how you think, feel, and act as you cope with life. It also helps determine how you manage stress, relate to others, and make decisions. In other words, life is hard. As a leader, you are constantly confronted with challenges, distractions, and obstacles.
When you are not in a good place with your thoughts and emotions, you tend to make up what you do not know. Imagine that you have received some critical feedback. The conclusions you draw about the feedback and the person giving it to you depend upon your mental healthiness. You begin to tell yourself stories. You might tell yourself that you are a failure or that you feel ashamed or hopeless. You might feel anger and become defensive and reactive.
On the other hand, you might tell yourself that you have an opportunity to improve. You might feel grateful for the experience and for the person who is helping you become the leader you are created to be. The conclusions you draw will influence how you feel and how you respond.
You run into trouble when you treat your thoughts as facts without checking the truth of your facts. Your thoughts influence how you feel and how you act. So do not turn pressure into stress. Start telling yourself a different story that is based on truth. Keep yourself mentally alert. You are responsible for your own well-being.
Your effectiveness as a leader depends upon it.
Finally, let’s look at spiritual health. Being spiritually healthy is essential for effective and courageous leadership. When you are spiritually healthy, you are deepening your understanding of meaning and purpose, you feel more connected to God, and to the people around you. You have more clarity when it comes to making everyday decisions, and your actions become more consistent with your beliefs and values.
So, develop a pattern of spiritual practice. On a daily basis, at the same time each day, read scripture for the purpose of transformation. Reflect upon what you are reading. What is it saying to you? How does it inform your living and your relationships? Then respond by putting into action what you have read. At the end of the day, return to the scripture. How did you experience the scripture throughout the day? With whom did you interact? For whom or what are you grateful? A pattern of spiritual practice will make a difference in who you are and how you lead.
Develop a pattern of meditation. By periodically stepping away to reflect, you are better able to recognize and acknowledge your deepest potential. You not only become more aware of the choices you are making but aware of how those choices shape who you are and affect the people around you. By intentionally cultivating a sense of self, you are becoming more who you are created to be.
Your Health as A Leader
Your healthiness as a leader requires care and attention, not only for your physical body but for your mind and spirit as well. The benefits of spiritual well-being are numerous, from being more compassionate in your relationships to living into a deeper sense of inner peace. Being spiritually healthy not only makes you feel better but helps you be better. You are responsible for your own well-being. Your effectiveness as a leader depends upon it.
Keep in mind that these areas are so interrelated that a lack of attention in one area affects the well-being of the other areas. You might consider yourself healthy spiritually, but if you have not developed healthy eating habits, or suffer from a lack of sleep and rest, you are out of balance. Your emotional and mental well-being is dependent upon your spiritual healthiness as well as your physical healthiness. I am sure you get the point.
Make Time for You
This week, make time for a self-care health check. What area needs your immediate attention? What will you do to improve your self-care? You are responsible for your own well-being. Your effectiveness as a leader depends upon.
Know of my prayers for you as you seek to be a healthy leader.
If you decide you can put your self-care off a little while longer, just remember, who you are is how you lead.