Bleary eyes, pallid skin, unclear agenda, a tendency to overreact…these are all signs of a leader not practicing self-care. This short article explores why so many leaders are disinclined to take good care of themselves, even though their high-pressure jobs tend to require it. It also identifies how some have overcome the ‘stigma’ associated with looking after yourself, to good effect…

Effects of pressure and uncertainty

Many leaders’ working lives involve early mornings, late nights, too many emails and constant travelling – with a backdrop of huge uncertainty in the marketplace and pressure to deliver improved results in short time-frames.

A lucky few weather this well, managing to bring elements of clear leadership despite the storm. However, even the best of us struggle to find calm within ourselves and can end up burdened by overwork. This situation, if left, can unintentionally destroy value both at work and at home. People pretend everything is OK, yet get hooked on disconnected, anxious activity, and withdraw emotionally into themselves.

In extreme situations, some find themselves in crisis and unable to continue. It’s helpful to look back at what happened to Antonio Horta-Osorio, LLoyds Banking Group Chief Executive back in 2011. Under the unforgiving glare of the media and the markets, he had to take a complete break due to exhaustion. It’s cheering to hear that he was so open about this process, and seems to have made an excellent recovery. There must have been some big lessons for him in this experience regarding his own self-care practices.

My observation is that regular self-care makes a big difference in dealing with exhaustion and overwhelm, and the most effective senior leaders often do this in quite a disciplined, regular way.

The pull towards heroics

So why don’t leaders take good care of themselves? Our recent client work indicates that organizations and leaders, are still stuck in an outdated model of heroic leadership which says you have to be thick-skinned, tough, thrusting – and maybe even slightly robotic, to succeed in today’s big business environment. The self-talk says “self-care is for softies”.

This one-dimensional and rather punishing approach may work just fine when you a) are young; b) have few responsibilities; c) have a high degree of autonomy; d) things are basically working out for you and problems are fairly easy to solve. However, as very few of the above are true for many of the leaders we work with, we usually recommend that they become a bit more realistic – and sensitive, to their own capacities and limits, and find ways of ‘re-charging’ themselves.

Useful practices

In my article on Advanced leadership skills for uncertainty I mention that practices such as tai-chi, mindfulness and meditation can support those who are serious about self-care. But if that feels like a bit of a leap(!), here are some examples from senior leaders we know who have found good, practical ways of taking care of themselves:

“Some mornings I have a leisurely breakfast with my grandson and start work a bit later than usual – because it’s important to me, and I easily make up the time elsewhere in the day. I encourage my team to find ways of making time for the things that are important to them.”
– Business Director, Service Company

“My garden saves me when I get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of complex work I have to get through. After just a couple of hours on a Sunday morning digging, weeding or planting, everything is in perspective – and my garden is starting to return to the beautiful place it once was.”
– Commercial Director, Manufacturing Company

“I used to play hockey in my younger days, and since taking up this new job I’ve picked it up again. I can’t always play in matches, but I make a real effort to attend training nights. It’s disciplined, enjoyable and good for my body. Your advice to spend a little time sitting afterwards ‘basking in the glow of my own goodness’ has been valuable too, if awkward at times! – like a short meditation on myself.”
– Managing Director, Utilities Company

Self-care principles

Looking through the examples above, and comparing these with others that we know of, it seems that there are three important elements to these self-care practices:

i) There’s a genuinely enjoyable activity at the heart of the self-care practice – maybe something the leader loved doing when he or she was younger, or something that has great meaning for them now

ii) The leader defines a clear boundary around work so that the activity can happen reasonably regularly

iii) The leader tells others about this practice, thus creating a more supportive culture within their teams which seems to benefit everyone.

If you’d like to share your own experiences for the benefit of others, please comment below. You might also find it helpful to sign on to my regular leadership digest.

[This article was first published on the Integral Change Consulting Ltd website.]

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