How to Protect Yourself So You Can Lead Others

overwhelmed businessmanA drowning man may drown you as well.

When learning water rescue techniques, the first lessons are how to keep yourself safe. To not become another victim. The next lessons are how to defend yourself from someone who is drowning. From the person you are trying to rescue.

When someone is drowning, they will often panic. The panic can be so extreme that they become frantic. This may lead to a wild thrashing, trying to climb onto anything that appears to float or grabbing onto a rescue swimmer in such a way that the rescuer can no longer swim.

The frantic behavior costs them their already limited energy. It also makes them a danger. They often won’t be responsive to instructions or guidance. They are fighting for survival.

Their fight is often part of what ends up killing them.

Frantic Leaders are Dangerous Leaders

New leaders, particularly those in senior or executive positions, are often surprised by the immensity and unending nature of their responsibilities.

It isn’t uncommon that they feel overwhelmed. As if they are drowning.

The sense of overwhelm quickly gives room for fear. The fear of being pulled under by underperformance, mistakes, failure or revealed inabilities is so acute that many leaders lose perspective.

This panic often translates into frantic, thrashing work behaviors.

Make no mistake about it, they are working. Working very hard.

In fact, they are often working harder than they need to or should be. But they aren’t working effectively.

Not only that but they begin to grab onto others to save themselves. Even people who are trying to help.

By not being able to protect themselves, by not knowing how to identify or receive help, they become a danger to others.

These leaders might start overwhelming others with task dumps or unrealistic expectations. They might place an unjust responsibility on others, blaming them for their own challenges.

They are drowning and taking others with them.

How to Protect Yourself So You Can Lead Others

When attempting a “rescue swim” with a leader in this situation, the conversations often start like this:

“I’m overwhelmed, I have too much to do, I can’t rely on my staff, no one else can get this done, Help!”

Then, as I start to work with them they’ll say:

“I’m too busy to learn how to be less busy!”

Own Your Priorities

I don’t doubt that you are busy. I don’t doubt that deadlines and problems may be crushing you. I’m not surprised that there are endless meetings and requests by others and issues that break up your attention.

Here’s the deal: If you can’t learn to swim in choppy waters, you’ll never be able to lead. You’ll only be able to focus on survival.

Here’s the good news: You can learn to swim. You can learn to be an excellent, strong and confident swimmer who effortlessly appears to slice through the waves.

The “How”: You have to stop the thrashing behaviors that aren’t serving you well but make you feel safe. You need to start learning new behaviors.

These new behaviors take less effort. They are very focused in their efforts. But they are new.

This often feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Undesirable feelings when already feeling overwhelmed. So, don’t be shy about getting help. That’s the smart choice.

Here is some of that help:

Focus: Clarify What You Are Trying To Accomplish

Stephen Covey famously wrote, “Begin with the end in mind.” In other words, obtain crystal clarity on what is important to you and what you are trying to accomplish.

When I work with leaders, I find that many of them have very short “horizons.” In other words, when I ask them to look out and describe the future – they may only be able to see clearly a few weeks or possibly a few months out.

Some can easily see out a year or many years. Unfortunately, many lose sight of that more distant horizon due to rough waters.

Wherever you are, however far you can see – that’s fine. Start there.

I always encourage people to look out as far as they can and then stand on their tiptoes. Try to see just a smidge further over their horizon.

Get focused on where you need to end up in a few weeks or months. If you can see further out, go for it.

Keep it very simple. Very focused. It’s so much better to have just two or three goals. It’s best to have one.

You need to focus.

Yes. Everything else also needs to get done. And it will. Or enough of it will. (Everything never needs to actually get done. It just appears to.)

But first, you need to focus.

Tip: Write this goal down. Be as specific and detailed as you can. See it. Know what it will look like, how you know you are making progress, how you’ll know you’ve achieved it.

Prioritize Your Priorities

Take a look at what you’ve written. What are the key steps that you need to take to accomplish your focus? Some people like to plan this out backwards. Some people like to plan it out forward.

Do whatever works easiest for you.

Then start breaking it down into smaller goals or tasks. Put those in your calendar.

Tips: A) Map out your priorities. B) Put the time you need to work on them on your calendar. Protect these appointments with yourself.

Force Multiply

A “force multiplier” is anything that helps amplify the effectiveness of other groups or tactics.

Leaders, when operating well, are force multipliers. Teams should operate at a higher level because of your leadership. People should grow. Capacity and performance should increase.

This requires a shift away from thinking, “How am I going to do it all?” to “What do I need to do to help them do it all?”

Many leaders get overwhelmed because they don’t know how to leverage the resources around them. This is more difficult when all of your goals or steps are locked up inside of you. It’s much easier to work with others when they also can see what needs to be done.

That’s what makes the previous steps important.

Now, decide. All of your priorities or steps should be able to fit into the table below. You should keep your focus on the items that require your leadership. Everything else should be given to others.

When you choose to do something that someone else could do, you are saying, “No” to work that only you can do.

That has the result of limiting your ability to accomplish your focus. It also creates a backlog of all the work you feel like you need to get done.

It creates that sense of overwhelm.

Let Others Help You

The primary way that a leader lets others help him or her – is by helping others do more on their own.

Letting others help you includes entrusting tasks, responsibilities, and authority to others. It also includes shifting your role from one of being a “doer” to one of being a mentor, a teacher, a cheerleader, a coach, a focus provider.

I recently spoke with a leader who was new in her senior leadership role. She’s very smart and competent. She told me that she struggled feeling like she wasn’t working when she mentored, coached or trained her staff.

Her staff has all told me that she works too much, that she doesn’t give them enough to do. That she should let go of some of her responsibilities.

So, I’m working to help her reframe what “work” looks like.

It goes back to shifting your question, as I mentioned earlier. Away from, “How am I going to do it all?” to “What do I need to do to help them do it all?”

You can read more about how to delegate here.

A second way of letting others help you is to make sure that you’re building the kind of relationships with those who strengthen you. This often includes people like mentors (this includes both peers and people you look up to) as well as coaches.

The third way is to intentionally staff the jobs or responsibilities that don’t require your attention. If you are running a multi-million dollar company but still doing the bookkeeping – you are not using your time efficiently.

Your job is to move your entire team forward to accomplish the purpose in front of you. You can’t do that if you are spending time on things someone else could do.

Rescuing yourself

As a leader, it’s critically important that you learn to manage yourself, your time, energy and resources by priorities. Otherwise, you’ll never stop feeling overwhelmed.

You can’t reasonably expect to manage others well if you are unable to manage yourself.

Get clear about your priorities. Do what only you can do. Enable others to do everything else. Get help.

If you do these things, you’ll stop feeling overwhelmed. You’ll be able to lead into the next inevitable storm with confidence.

Take good care,


P.S. Would you like to learn more about how to reduce your workload? If so, I’ve created a free resource for you entitled How to Accomplish More Without Doing More. Download it today!

P.P.S. If you’d like to explore how I can work with you, one-on-one, to rapidly increase your ability accomplish your priorities, decrease your unwanted workload, boost your profits or do more of what you love?

95% of my clients report positive results within the first 90 days. Additionally, they report adding between $120K and $1M in new, annual revenue or savings.  Contact me to learn more: or 907 522-7200

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