Counting on Leaders to Take Care of Themselves

by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR

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The responsibilities of leadership are so great that few would be unwise enough to accept them if they really knew their importance. People count on leaders for all manner of things large and small, such as emotional support, getting resources needed for work, help guiding one’s career, and for one’s livelihood itself. Having a good leader at work is almost like winning the professional lottery. One just needs to experience a mediocre or bad supervisor, manager, or administrator to fully understand and appreciate the value of a good leader. Followers, rightfully, are invested in the success of their leaders, and are, therefore, concerned about them and their well-being.
Good managers are effective at getting work done; good leaders impact the hearts and minds of those doing the work. They provide encouragement, they expand the mind and the sense of what is possible, they create optimism, and they help people believe in themselves. It is easy to know the difference when working with a good leader in comparison to a run-of-the-mill administrator. It is no wonder that some professionals follow their leaders when their leaders change companies or institutions.
Managers are supervisors; Leaders are mentors, supporters, sponsors, and cheerleaders. The relationship is often reciprocal. Leaders help make others better, and everyone who has a great leader wants them to be well. They know for selfish reasons that the leader’s success is also theirs.
A quote plastered on a training colleague’s door says it all: “Everyone wins when a leader gets better.” But, what happens when a leader is not well? Leaders should appreciate the fact that if they do not take care of themselves, they actually harm more than just themselves. Doctors’ orders for leaders might be to get rest, mind one’s health, and to accept help.
Leaders take care of their people. Military officers are trained to ensure their troops are well-fed, trained, equipped, and supported at work, at home, and in their personal lives. An army can’t go to battle without men and women who are healthy, prepared, and ready for action at a moment’s notice. Pastors and leaders of faith look after their flock daily with hospital and home visits, coffee meetings, and occasions to break bread and commune. The best administrators help get their subordinates promoted. But who looks after the leader?
It might seem mundane or trite, but leaders need to follow their mothers’ advice and get some rest. A good night’s sleep is its own reward. Experts today have scientific proof that our mothers were right. Lack of sleep and fatigue slow the mind, affect learning and memory, and have effects detrimental to our health, like affecting blood pressure.
Leaders must also eat their veggies, exercise, get annual physicals, and do all the important stuff we already know. It might sound easy, but the schedules and demands of the average leader are merciless. It’s hard to eat well when you are always on the go, in airports, in endless meetings, and the like. Time pressures take away opportunities for fitness, and rescheduling wellness checks is easier than rescheduling important meetings, speaking engagements, and board events. Yet, when a leader does not show up, the train runs slower, less effectively, and sometimes stops altogether. The preventive efforts of getting rest, eating right, and staying fit are as prudent as ever.
A lot of people count on their leader to wake up every day and perform at their very best, without fail. Who reminds the leader to look after themselves? Good leaders know that no one succeeds alone. They rely on others, they train their compadres to step up when needed. When leaders prepare, support, and encourage others, they can delegate and take time off as appropriate. Yet, sometimes leaders have the false notion that they can do it alone or that they have superpowers. They assume that when faced with difficulties — deadlines, lack of sleep, too much to do, not enough resources, a bad cold — they can just ‘power-through.’
When leaders are not well, everyone suffers. People can offer their leaders help in big and small ways. Leaders should be gracious enough — and smart enough — to accept help. The burdens of leadership are great and unforgiving. The risk of failure never goes away. Simple things like a mother coming over to cook her daughter a good meal when she is stressed and preparing for a big presentation at work, or a colleague who volunteers to get lunch so that the boss can concentrate on the department’s budget request, are examples of supporting the leader. A subordinate who volunteers to work overtime to assist the boss — who inevitably is working late — is another example.

To sustain excellence, leaders must tend to their own self-care. They should take deliberate actions to ensure that they are ready for every challenge of the day. In order to do so, they must be well-rested and healthy. Additionally, leaders must balance their on-going workload by accepting help and preparing others to be able to take the baton from time to time. It sounds easy, but there are far too many examples of leaders who work themselves into poor health, accelerate their own demise, or perform inadequately because they have taken on too much. Leaders must spend sufficient time caring for themselves as much as they do caring for others, because there are a lot of people’s livelihoods, promotional opportunities, careers, morale, and much more, riding on their good health.

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