Leaders Need Self-Care Too

Key Takeaways

  • The term, ‘self-care’ connotates negativity with some leaders, although research has demonstrated its value
  • Leaders can best take care of others when they take care of themselves – even if they need to call it something else

“Mark, I know we’re supposed to coach on my leadership philosophy today, but I was hoping we could talk about how unmotivated I’ve been lately.”

“Mark, I’m feeling really hypocritical trying to inspire my team when I’m feeling completely burnt out. How can I talk the talk if I’m not walking the walk?”

The comments above are real, shared by my leadership coaching clients and reflective of the way that more of my coaching sessions have begun over the past year. As leaders open up and share what’s really going on, many confide that they’re simply burnt out or overwhelmed. When “unmotivated,” “stressed out” or other descriptors of emerge during coaching, I often turn to the topic of self-care to explore how well my client is focusing on their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. More often than not, we uncover a void in one or more areas that is serving as a primary source of discontent.

A recent survey found that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 85% saw a decline in their general well-being and 89% saw a decline in their workplace well-being.[i] The causes were plentiful ­– ranging from increased work demands to home-life struggles. Interestingly, however, 22% actually saw their general well-being improve and 20% saw their workplace well-being improve[1]. How? They saw improvement through self-care practices such as better sleep, more family time, better diet & exercise routines and better boundaries, amongst others.

Why then do so many leaders shun self-care practices such as those above? The reasons are many, but a recent article by leadership coach and teacher Dr. Palena Neale sounded as though she had talked with some of my clients.[ii] Dr. Neale finds that many see self-care as a sign of weakness, something ‘real leaders’ shouldn’t need. Others conjure up images of cross-legged meditation sessions with candles and incense, and some surrender to their hectic lives proclaiming they just don’t have time in their busy schedules to look out for themselves.

When it comes to solutions, the simplest ideas are often the most effective. Some leaders learn to accept the need for self-care by simply calling it something else: “Getting myself squared away” seems to work for a few of the military leaders I coach. Starting small can also help leaders introduce self-care back into their lives. When a client recently shared that she tried and failed at mediation because 30 minutes was too long, I asked her about trying it for just five minutes. Once shown research demonstrating that even five minutes a day of mindful meditation or focused breathing could help, she was motivated to give it a try. Starting small can work in many other areas too, including:

  • Exercise— How about a 10-minute walk?
  • Journaling— What might jotting down one thing you’re grateful for every day do?
  • Sleep— Think you could shut the lights off 15 minutes earlier?[iii]

The results have been impressive for many. One client started meditating regularly and another began practicing yoga. Yet, another focused on getting seven hours of sleep a night (instead of three to four) and quickly saw her energy levels and motivation rise.

Leaders who take care of themselves are much better able to take care of those whom they lead. If ‘getting yourself squared away’ is what you need to call it, so be it. Start finding ways to take care of yourself and see how fast it happens!

[1] “Percentages refer to the number of respondents who made clear references to the general sentiments, trends, and themes of the cited survey, and do not add up to 100%.”

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.