leadership self care

Are you making time for leadership self-care?

When was the last time you told someone on your team to take a break, delegate or take some time off? Good leaders watch out for people who report to them.

But when was the last time that you told yourself to take a break, delegate or booked time off? Good leaders should take care of themselves, too, but we often fall short on leadership self care.

When we’re working with leaders, we hear excuses like:

“I’ve got too much at stake. I’ve managed so far, and I’ll keep managing.”
“I don’t get the luxury of relaxing at this stage.”
“I can’t focus on self-care now. It’s not the priority.”
“I’ll take a holiday when I get through this project/phase/year…that will be enough.”

Many leaders resist the idea that self-care is important, either because they don’t see the value in slowing down or they see it as overly indulgent somehow. Others think that a strong and serious leader doesn’t need something so self-indulgent as self-care. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, often we don’t take what we need to care for ourselves, because it feels good to be critical to a project, to be the only one who has the info or the experience or the talent needed.

Sometimes, changing the terminology from leadership “self-care” to focusing on what that actually looks like is helpful.

You’ve heard the instructions in airplanes that adults should put their own oxygen masks on before helping children or those who need extra assistance? That makes sense because you can’t help someone else if you can’t breathe.

Leadership self-care is more than spa days, soft music, candles and walks in the park (not to knock any of those things!). It’s about making sure we take good care of our physical and mental health so that we can function at our optimal levels and take care of everything we need to take care of as leaders.

Deep down, we all know we are not invincible — no matter how talented, creative or successful we are. We know, thanks to medical and scientific evidence, that we all function better when we:

  • Eat a balanced and healthy diet (no skipping meals or fueling ourselves on junk!)
  • Exercise regularly, even if only a little
  • Have a consistent sleep routine and get regular, adequate and restful sleep
  • Manage our stress and regulate our emotions with healthy outlets
  • Connect with those we care about
  • Do things outside of work that are fulfilling socially, emotionally and even spiritually

Each of these things is a way to practice leadership self-care. Seeing it framed this way, does it feel more palatable? It might still feel like a lower priority compared to the plethora of leadership demands and regular workday crises, but many leaders will agree that there is merit to watching out for their health.

In business, we talk a lot about return on investment. When we invest in our health and wellbeing, we reap benefits beyond the cost. Leadership self-care is an investment into our own productivity, and thus an investment in our success, in the organization’s success and in the success of teams we lead. It’s a positive.

Think about it: A healthy diet, regular exercise, good sleep and managing stress are all ways to boost mood and energy, lower depression, sharpen memory and focus and even improve our cognitive functioning. That’s quite the ROI from our physical and mental health.

Do you agree that your leadership would benefit from enhanced productivity, creativity, memory, focus, motivation and a better mood?

If you consider your work priorities right now, would you say it would be easier to achieve goals if you were healthy, rested and in control?

The more you spend your time and energy helping your team grow and develop their skills, the harder it can be to intentionally develop your own. You can’t only do for others and not take care of your own growth and development.

Leadership self-care to be an effective leader

Here are some changes that help you be really effective as a leader (and hint – they’re all prioritizing your health and wellbeing, which is leadership self-care):

Make it a priority. I know leaders who say if something is not in the calendar, it’s not going to happen. Whatever you decide to develop as your own self-care skills needs to be part of your routine, scheduled and safeguarded (every bit as important as other stuff!). Taking care of yourself is an investment.

Avoid burnout. Make sure you’re filling your own well in terms of emotional rest and self-care because you want to make sure you’re able to provide for your own intellectual and professional well-being. To use another water metaphor, if your bucket isn’t full (or worse, if it has holes in it!), you’re not going to be able to fill other people’s buckets or put out fires. It’s critical that you take steps to prevent leadership burnout.

Make time for learning and reflection. Take workshops, read, meet with peers or mentors and stay curious about learning more. As leaders, we can always add new skills to our toolkits. Many leaders also find it helpful to journal as a way to reflect and learn from what goes well or what doesn’t.

Figure out what you can assign to others and how to delegate. Too many of us try to do it all, which is counterproductive for many reasons. Learning to delegate effectively is a crucial leadership skill that saves you time and sanity while also building capacity among your team members.

Take time off. That doesn’t mean staying in touch by phone from a different location! Take a complete break away from all of your work demands to rest, relax and recharge. (Here’s how to take a vacation from work and really unplug.) Downtime will help you keep your energy levels high, but equally important is spending time with family and friends (companionship releases all those feel-good endorphins, and time together strengthens your personal support network).

Carve out time for yourself every day. As part of your routine, find moments each work day and weekend to do things that you want to do, things that are restorative and things that make you happy. It can be as simple as taking your lunch outside, going for a walk, phoning a friend or putting on some headphones and listening to music. Just make sure time for yourself is on your daily to-do list and booked in your calendar.

Build a support network. Meet with other leaders regularly and consistently. Have a monthly coffee or breakfast with a peer or mentor. Find someone you trust to talk to so you don’t carry the emotional work of leadership entirely on your own. (If you’re not sure where to start with that, you could try one of our leadership peer programs.)

Develop a hobby outside of work. Find an outlet that inspires and invigorates you, whether that’s taking a class, joining a team or group or volunteering. Being social improves overall mental health. That’s because connecting with other people lowers anxiety, regulates emotions, improves mood and all of that can also improve immunity.

Establish an exercise routine. You don’t have to join a gym or take a yoga class (though that might be worth trying!). It’s important to have regular physical activity as per the current health guidelines because it helps with energy, health and immunity. Find an outlet that’s healthy for challenging emotions and stress and gets you moving each day.

Practice mindfulness. Learning how to be mindful gives you a solid foundation. It’s about being present and self aware — not just about what’s happening but also about how you’re reacting in the moment.

You don’t have to do all that — now that you’ve read through ways to practice leadership self-care, consider what that will look like for you. It’s time to make changes that create a routine that re-energizes and boosts your mood and health.

Over time, what you need or want might change and that’s fine, as long as you are making your health and wellbeing a priority amid all the other demands on your time and energy. As leaders, we can also lead by example and encourage our teams to take care of themselves, too.

Coach’s Questions:

When you think about it seriously, what is your resistance to the idea of leadership self-care based on? What would it take to change your outlook? What can you do to integrate strategies that improve your health and well-being into your current routine? How can you take steps right now to make time for yourself?

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