Leaders can learn important skills from those with different backgrounds and responsibilities. Some of our best ideas come from unexpected places. We can learn a lot about sustainability from other fields that suffer from burnout and exhaustion. Self care for leaders is critical to help us show up when we need to be engaged and present.
Leaders deal with emotionally taxing and cognitively demanding inputs. Between the emotional labor of decisions, managing complex relationships, and switching between tasks that have an attentional cost, leaders have to invest time in self care to recharge.
Other professions also face this challenge, especially those with patients in a clinical setting like therapists and psychologists.
Therapists who deal with different patients and juggle their empathetic listening with their client struggles can face burnout at a high rate.
Because of the importance of maintaining the emotional and cognitive bandwidth to offer care, these professionals intentionally seeking self care routines. It’s essential to their ability to offer care.
It’s just as essential for leaders.
For you to do your best work with your team, you need to stay afloat. As countless pre-flight safety briefings have taught us: “you need to put your mask on before assisting others.”
Let’s look at some tools that you can use to develop self care as a leader.
The Challenge of Self Care for Leaders
Leaders have to do so many things in a day. Most of them are emotionally and intellectually demanding. Because leadership challenges aren’t routine, you don’t benefit from the energy-saving state of performing by rote habit.
As a result, leaders need to nourish their energy and capacity every day so that they’re able to act sharp and refreshed when the opportunity (and need) arises.
Leadership is all about using your skills, experience, and emotional intelligence to resolve challenges and relate to people in a way that allows the entire team to be more likely to perform.
By taking the time to institute self care, you are putting yourself in a position to do those things more effectively. If your work and your mission demand a lot, you need to do as much as possible to have a lot of yourself to give. Leaders have to show emotional regulation (especially when operating in the Democratic Leadership style, which requires interaction and keen awareness of others.)
If the system you are using to maintain energy is not self-reinforcing and sustainable, your long-term prospect as a leader will suffer.
Components of Self Care
Self care will mean different things to different people, but some of the most common components for most people involve:
- Nutrition: Being able to eat foods that give you energy is critical to maintaining your performance and general health.
- Sleep: Similar to nutrition, sleep is essential for your mental and physical recovery. Good sleep keeps you sharp and energetic. You might let work eat into your sleep, but losing waking hours you realized by getting a full night sleep instead of shortchanging yourself will be more than made up for by the increase in productivity while you are awake.
- Spiritual and mental: Meditation, prayer, literary reflection—whatever you choose—taking some time to nurture your soul will be beneficial for your ability to engage with the world as a more well-rounded, grounded person.
- General relaxation: Whatever makes you feel comfortable, at ease, and joyful is a valuable element of self care because it provides you with some respite against the day’s efforts. This leaves room for your mind to wander, and your energy to recharge.
- Focus: Time to learn and think about things other than work and stimulate your intellectual curiosity provides you with outside benefits that may help you in identifying concepts or new ideas to bring with you to work. Cultivating unrelated curiosity can often yield great problem-solving insights.
- Recognizing and enforcing limits: By setting realistic expectations for yourself in the eyes of both yourself and your colleagues, you give yourself the room to recover self care.
Most of these self care for leaders goals require you make room for them. The rest of this article will show you how to build space in your life to accommodate the self care rituals that will strengthen your leadership.
Leaving Work at Work
To have the energy to use at work, you need to leave the workplace. You recharge when you fully step away from the things that are demanding your energy and attention.
While your home will make demands of you as well, being able to engage fully in your time with your family or your interests provides a renewed outlook to take with you back to the workplace.
Distance provides perspective, a valuable component of self care for leaders. That’s a common theme of our pursuit of self care in this article: that perspective liberates you to see things in a new light, with more energy and drive.
Here are some ways for you to set some effective boundaries so that you can go home freely:
- Set expectations: Be sure that everyone knows what your availability is and isn’t. Try as hard as possible to reinforce those through your responses to requests.
- Understand why: Recognize that setting boundaries is not about neglecting work, but about doing your best work. In creating the distance to recover, you’ll be able to do substantial work later. Much like runners who adopt lighter days for recovery where they do not run to compete at their best, you need to do the same for your engagement with your work.
- Use structures and routine to manage the separation and boundary: By knowing when you’ll be responding to messages and setting routines for your communication patterns, you can train others to work with you on your boundaries.
- Communicate your rationale: Be sure everyone understands the values that drive these decisions, and you expect it will help you deliver as a leader. By sharing your “why” it’s much easier for your peers to accept how you’re doing your work.
- Maintain integrity: Setting boundaries for yourself is an important precursor to setting and accepting boundaries for others. If you’re doing the right thing by giving yourself room to step away from work at home, do the same for others. This creates a culture that supports recovery and reengagement.
Process Your Work
An overlooked benefit of distance is the ability to process the inputs that you received over the day.
Thinking through the implications of a conversation for determining when you need to respond to them, you can get a valuable perspective on what you’ve learned.
Give yourself room to reflect on what occurred during the day and how it will affect what you do the next day.
This is also a good time for you to “close the door” on some of your work. Doing so ensures that you have achieved some separation between that and the rest of your day.
I read of people who when getting in their car would visualize themselves crumpling up the day’s events and throwing them into “the trash”. You may choose an image that is a little less dismissive—perhaps imagine being a paper that you’re putting into a folder of all of your days and filing away in a cabinet.
This approach gives you some closure for the day and allows you to go home, but also to make sense of what occurred on that day.
Journaling is a helpful tool because that allows you to clear out the cognitive load of what occurred. You can document the action items that you did not capture, which is a productivity tool that also removes some stress. Documenting what needs finishing can convince your subconscious that you’ve taken care of the task and the loop can be closed.
You can also identify any lessons learned or anything that you believe merits further exploration for thinking. Journaling provides this closure and also enables precious insights through the processing effort.
Distance and Reflection
Self care for leaders facing heavy demands may just be a little space. Sometimes the only way that you can process what you’ve learned in the day and applied back to your goal of leading is through distance.
With the benefit of distance, we gain perspective. In the way we can laugh at embarrassing stories of years passed, we can also learn to see opportunities in daily challenges at work.
Often, you need to step away to see trends or patterns that need to be addressed. Perhaps there is an ongoing challenge or opportunity that has gone unnoticed because you’ve been too involved in it and lost perspective.
When leading others, you are going to be a part of many conversations, going to make many decisions, and you’re going to have to take both the tactical and the long-term strategic views and reconcile them.
By moving a level up from the daily conversations that support your mission, you can discover ideas that are more cohesive and complete.
I’ve known leaders who are so busy that the only time they think about the topic is when they are in the meeting with the people who are leading the effort. They don’t have the time to think about the topic outside of those meetings. That means that they can’t string them together into the cohesive view of the overall leadership mission.
If you find yourself in that position because there are too many things going on, you need the distance for reflection.
The concept of mindfulness is that you note both the ideas and the emotions that you experience at the time that you experienced them. You don’t pass judgment, but you experience and recognize it.
By doing something similar with the aspects that affect our leadership potential and our initiative, we notice what’s happening to us and around us. We can then use that observation and mindfulness to make intentional decisions or reactions to them.
This mindfulness gives perspective, and it also allows us to break out of the routine and the inertia that might take us away from doing something novel or truly innovative for solving problems.
The Criticality of Self Care
By developing an intentional practice for self care as a leader, you do the sort of ax-sharpening that is necessary for you to bring your best work to the workplace.
There’s no reason to feel guilty by being considerate of what you need to be successful. That investment will pay off far beyond the time away from doing the things that drain your energy.
Hopefully, this convinces you to monitor your self care as a path to better leadership—and encourage self care for your team so they can perform at their peak.