Is self-care just for softies?

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

Late nights and too many emails…

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 now.

Some weather this well, managing to bring elements of strong, clear leadership despite the storm.  Others struggle to find any calm within themselves and end up weakened by overwork.  They unintentionally destroy value – through either getting hooked on disconnected, anxious activity, or by withdrawing into themselves.

And some, like Antonio Horta-Osorio – LLoyds Banking Group Chief Executive – find themselves having to take a break.

Our observation is that regular self-care makes a big difference here.

Heroic leadership

So why don’t leaders take good care of themselves?  Our recent client work indicates that many leaders – and organizations – are still stuck in an outdated model of heroic leadership which says you have to be thick-skinned, tough, thrusting – and maybe even slightly robotic – to succeed in today’s big business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.  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; and when d) things are basically working out for you and problems are fairly easy to solve.  However, as none of the above is 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.

Practical solutions

In my blog on ‘five essential skills for leading through uncertainty’, I mention that practices such as tai-chi 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 a little odd!) – like a short meditation on myself perhaps…” Managing Director, Utilities Company

Three important elements

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:

  • 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
  • The leader defines a clear boundary around work so that the activity can happen reasonably regularly
  • 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, or learn more about practicing self-care please contact us.  We’d love to hear!

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