Leadership Health

Years ago, when I was a new executive director, I met with two other senior leaders. I was dealing with some kind of cough-congestion combo and was feeling a little drained. As we sat and caught up, one of the men looked at me and commented, “It sounds like you have ‘executive’s disease.’”

As I prepared to explain germ theory to him – he continued: “It seems like executives are always running themselves thin; absorbing stress and not taking care of themselves. Executives are often sick.”

It was true. Since I had taken this position, I had experienced an array of nagging physical ailments. This conversation propelled my journey to learn how to ‘be well’ as a leader.

I’m referring to more than just physical wellness. Leadership, as a whole, often takes a toll on those who exercise it. This may manifest physically; but, it is just as likely to manifest emotionally, socially, spiritually or otherwise. I’ve discovered that wise leaders are aware of this and nourish, rest, and build themselves.

Consider this thought: We lead out of who we are.

If ‘who I am’ is sick, strained, isolated, maxed out…then that’s what I’m leading out of. That’s the kind of leadership I offer.

If, instead, I am physically well and rested, I have emotional margin and I’m being creatively engaged and challenged, then that’s the kind of leadership I offer.

Research demonstrates that personal wellness, even just getting sufficient sleep, impacts my energy levels, my creativity, my lateral thinking and my decision-making ability. I am unable to sustain healthy leadership if I am unhealthy.

Consider this following thought: As leaders, we have an obligation to take care of ourselves for the benefit of those we lead.

Here are at least five areas of leadership ‘health’ that effective leaders pay special attention:

Build Healthy Family Relationships: Cultivating a healthy home environment is a critical task for leaders. Many of us have to learn how to build this- we may not have grown up with it. A home environment that is supportive, nurturing and encouraging is crucial. Learning to be the kind of person who can build a healthy home environment is transforming and will positively impact your leadership.

Build Encouraging and Challenging Peer Relationships: We need to resist the two temptations of leadership: Isolating and not ‘upgrading’ our peer relationships.

  1. Isolation: “It’s lonely at the top,” is often repeated as a leadership maxim. Yes, things change as your reputation grows and your roles changes. Healthy leaders find peers – even if they need to travel to them – whom they can be authentic with, who will challenge and encourage them.
  2. Friendship Upgrades: Sometimes our friends ‘stop’ in life. They quit growing as people or as professionals. They find a place where they are content to coast. Or, worse, they cultivate a negativity or pessimistic thinking that is incompatible with effective leadership. Set a goal to spend at least two-thirds of your time with friends (new or old) who are pursuing growth, who have healthy ambitions, and who encourage you.

Sleep: You need it. Research is clear, sleep deprivation makes us more prone to diabetes and heart disease and unhealthy eating (which, when combined with lack of sleep, creates an negative spiral.) Sufficient sleep – usually 8 hours for most of us – is directly correlated with improved problem-solving skills, creativity, lateral thinking, energy, situational awareness and improved mood and emotional health. You serve others by sleeping well. You don’t serve them by being tired, cranky, uncreative or shortsighted.

Self-Development: Author and consultant Alan Weiss offers the concept of the 1% solution. Improve by 1% each day and in 70 days you’ll be twice as good. (I’ll let you play with the math on that – but it works.) The concept here is two-fold:

  1. Continuous Growth: We’re either growing or dying. We need to continuously expose ourselves to new concepts and challenges to grow and improve.
  2. Small Steps: Most people retain very little of any book they read, a conference they attend even degrees that they obtain. Some people get overwhelmed at what they don’t know and mistakenly feel they need to engage in a large-scale learning experience to even begin. Instead, look for steady, small steps forward: podcasts, journal articles, forums, a book on the nightstand, meeting with a coach.

Spiritual Health: I find that taking regular time away to pray, meditate and reflect on my relationship with God and others is crucial to both my growth and health as well as how I relate to others. I’m a Christian and my spiritual practices are informed by that experience. Research regularly associates regular practices of prayer, meditation and worship with people who tend to be healthier physically, relationally and even financially. Take time to explore what spiritual practices you need that tangibly translate to increased peace of mind, healthier relationships and deeper insight.

Feel free to add to or remove from this list. But don’t miss the point: effective leaders take care of their primary ‘tool’ – themselves. If we allow ourselves to become run down, worn out or outdated our usefulness is limited.

As leaders, it’s a service to others to take appropriate care of ourselves.


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