As leaders, regardless of the challenge or situation at hand, we’re often told “It’s not about you.” But leaders are a part of the team, and just as we’re responsible for our teams, we are also responsible for our own well-being. Just as we want members of our teams to show up “whole,” we need to want the same for ourselves.
Leaders count, and sometimes this even means putting ourselves first. In this article I share lessons learned, tips, and strategies for self-care and the impact it has on leading effectively.
Last year was a very challenging one for me, as I imagine it was for many of you. I battled physical and mental health issues as I wrapped up the second year in my new role as Head of HR.
Like most other organizations, mine was busy strategizing our reopening while also trying to support our workforce in dealing with their own traumas and fears about a return to the office. I was exhausted, I was burned out, and I was on the verge of a serious mental breakdown. However, I kept pressing on.
As a leader—among the most senior in my organization—I had to be there. I had to be present. People were depending on me to help them through a recovery, all the while I too, was trying to recover.
Then, my grandmother passed away.
That’s when it all came to a head. I was no longer functional, which made me useless to myself, to my team, and to my organization. I needed to take some time away and grieve the loss of my grandmother. I needed to work on my mental health and care for myself in ways no one else could. But if I took the time I needed, would things fall apart?
As leaders, we often think “Of course everything would fall apart without me,” but the answer is usually, “No, everything will be just fine.” According to the Harvard Business Review, there are three common excuses leaders give when resisting the notion of self-care:
1. It’s new age nonsense
2. Not enough time
3. Strong leaders and good leaders don’t need self-care
Unfortunately, it took the loss of a dear loved one for me to realize that I had been giving excuse after excuse for not taking care of myself. And as you may have guessed, the excuses and the burn out didn’t just impact me, it impacted my team as well.
Seeing yourself as a part of the team
At times, we leaders can see ourselves as existing outside of the team. In our roles we are tasked with ensuring that our staff have what they need to thrive. What we fail to do is realize that we are also a part of the teams we lead.
We often encourage staff to take time to care for themselves and their families, but in not recognizing that we, too, are members of the team, we risk forgetting that self care is critical for us, too.
In a recent Forbes article Leaders: Don’t Forget To Take Care Of Yourself Joyce Russell writes:
“So, it’s not only important for a leader to take care of themselves, but also to let others know that it’s okay and in fact, it is important to do this. It’s really hard for employees to take time for themselves if their boss never does.”
What made this point salient for me was the recognition that none of the members of my team had really taken any time. They were pushing through and, quite honestly, stressing out and burning out while watching me do the same.
Absence as the best presences
Fast Company identifies the five rules of self-care for great leaders as:
1. Be Honest
2. Be Kind
3. Love your body
4. Say “No”
5. Take a break
Taking a break was never in my rule book. But it turned out that once I took a break, everyone seemed to be better off for it. In fact, what I’ve found is that sometimes, absence can be the best presence.
Wondering what exactly that means?
When I was in the office stressing out, burning out, and not taking care of myself, it landed everyone else in pretty much the same boat as me. And no one (including me), was fully present. In taking the time away, I was more present for my team than I had been all year because I became the example they needed to take care of themselves. In other words, some degree of absence was critical to my ability to be present.
Strategies for self-care
In my time away and every day since, I have placed self-care above everything else and along the journey, I also picked up a few strategies to help me stay on course. Here are five self-care strategies that I’ve put into practice:
1. Face the hazards of your profession. We are not alone on this journey. Take the time to acknowledge and understand the challenges you are facing. Share them with your community and stop trying to face them alone.
2. Start with strategy, then find the techniques. Take the time to think things through. Strategize how you can address the challenges you face and then find the techniques to take them on.
3. Monitor yourself and take in feedback from those close with you. Pay attention to yourself, how you feel, and what you are thinking. If you feel a certain way, others probably have observed it, so talk to those closest to you; ask them if they’ve noticed a change in you.
4. Make your work environment work for you at home and in the office. Create a work space that energizes you and allows you to thrive. Keep a picture of a loved one on your desk or of your favorite vacation location, keep clutter to a minimum, or even add some plants.
5. Appreciate yourself, your work, and your growth. Take care of yourself the way you take care of others. Celebrate every win, both big and small.
Here are a few additional resources for practicing self-care right now.
As we begin a new year and prepare to take on the new and the unknown, let us take stock in what we do know. As leaders, we do not stand alone. We are part of a team, and as members of that team we are equally important. And while it is laudable to put everyone else first, it’s not practical. It’s also not healthy.
Taking care of you places you in the best position to be present fully and wholly for yourself and your team.
Dr. Waajida L. Small is a human resources executive who has worked in the public and non-profit sectors for over 15 years. She is a certified leadership and executive coach, human capital strategist and certified purpose leader. Dr. Small is the author of "Our Leadership Journey: Shared Stories, Lessons and Advice for Women of Color", a book for women of color on the rise into positions of leadership and influence in their organizations, industries and communities.