As managers and leaders we are often expected to somehow be impervious to the challenges and stresses of the work environment and even life in general. The thinking is that although part of our jobs is to guide and support our employees through stress, that by some miracle, we ourselves, as managers, should be immune to factors that threaten our effectiveness, our productivity and even our health.
Of course, the notion that we are impervious to stress is nonsense. In fact, as our responsibility and accountability grow as we rise in organizations, we generally become exposed to both greater quantity and intensity of stressors. The stakes of “getting it right” increase as the level of our responsibility increases.
The irony is that not only is the mythology wrong, but the less time and effort we devote to taking care of ourselves, the less capable we are of taking care of others and of achieving the results that are expected of us. This dilemma is well articulated in the paragraph below, excerpted from the February, 2015 edition of Entrepreneur magazine.
“Ethical leadership starts with how you treat yourself. You can’t inspire or motivate others when you are running on fumes. Self-renewal is a leadership responsibility (emphasis mine); it shifts attitude, energy, and a sense of possibility. Take steps to take better care of yourself–whether it involves time out for reflection (meditation), yoga, the gym, eating better, more sleep, deep breathing exercises or, yes, a day off to hang out with your family.” You can link to the story here.
The fact of the matter is that, like our employees, we are human beings with all the needs and frailties that come with the human condition. Not only is taking care of ourselves a smart thing to do, it is a leadership responsibility.
The good news is that we now know what areas of focus can bring the most value in achieving our own wellness and none of them are mysterious or terribly complicated, but like anything, they do require some level of commitment in order to realize the benefits.
As basic as it is, getting enough sleep may be the most important thing you can do for your own wellness and your efficacy as a leader. We now have overwhelming evidence of the criticality of sleep to health, wellness, and productivity. And most people who say they can operate on very little sleep are usually wrong. Even six hours of sleep per night results in degradation of cognitive, spatial, verbal, and physical abilities, including significant impact on the immune system. For a comprehensive look into the profoundly critical role of sleep, you can see a talk from Matthew Walker, Director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab.
Proper nutrition is the foundation for health and disease prevention. It also affects our moods, energy, and even life span.
Like nutrition and sleep, exercise not only supports physical health, it also supports mental health and cognition and may delay or prevent age related dementia. Importantly for leaders, physical activity also reduces stress. Fortunately, the benefits start with even limited activity and things as simple as taking the stairs and walking show meaningful benefits.
Mindfulness can come from many places and activities, but meditation has been shown to be exceptionally effective at supporting up to a dozen, powerful wellness outcomes! In fact, meditation may be a “miracle” approach to addressing everything from anxiety to attention span and has become essential to the leadership practice of millions of leaders.
Invest in Relationships
One of the interesting findings of research into happiness is that once our basic needs are met, the most important driver of happiness is our connection to others (not money or status or professional accomplishments). This is of particular interest to leaders because it dovetails with what other research has found about what makes employees satisfied in the workplace (and what they value in their supervisors/leaders). It’s not money. It’s relationships, connectedness to a purpose, and being appreciated. Salary was number eight on the list!
So, while supporting others is crucial to successful leadership, like the admonition from a flight attendant safety briefing to put your own mask on first before helping others, your capacity to do good for others is dependent on your own health and wellness. This is an example of where being “selfish” is actually good for yourself and good for others!