Self-care for the leader
Less urgency, but continuing uncertainty
We’ve moved from full-blown COVID-19 lockdown to a stage where there seems to be less urgency and also less definition, and where anxiety and lack of certainty are still very much in the air. A sense of everything being liable to change from one day to the next.
Leaders are facing tougher working conditions
Many leaders are experiencing tougher working conditions, both as a result of needing to manage the challenge of uncertainty and as a result of teams being geographically dispersed, and the processes of meeting both formally and informally undergoing radical change: the expectations of connection, both casual and structured, cannot now be taken for granted. Neither can the technological infrastructure be taken for granted (domestic arrangements may mean that broadband and/or personal space at home are under pressure, which can add a layer of stress when a demanding piece of work or process needs addressing). For a multitude of reasons, work seems to be harder and there seems to be much more to do.
High standards and extremes of stress
I’ve worked recently with two leaders in entirely different contexts, and I’m noticing some remarkable similarities: both are preoccupied with doing a very high-quality job (as they always have done) – and both are experiencing extremes of stress, approaching burnout. Both are explicit that their performance level is about half of what they were used to delivering pre-COVID.
Both are intent on not letting their teams down – and neither of them has been putting in place any boundaries or limits on what they’re asking of themselves. Both are struggling with demands they’re experiencing from beyond themselves – from seniors in their organisations or as a result of business imperatives related to the flourishing of their business.
No space to reflect
Neither of them has made any allowance for the tougher conditions they’re working in: they’re just working very hard to shoulder the load on themselves, with no apparent route to any new source of delegation, and no space to reflect on, or find their way through, the complexity of the situations they’re in. They’re both trying to do the same job and deliver the same quality standards as they were doing pre-COVID, but in radically different circumstances – and it’s an impossible task.
Options for change
There’s definitely no silver bullet resolution. And yet there are options for changing approach. I notice that leaders who pay particular attention to two principles can be both more effective and more sustainable:
- To accept reality, or as Jim Collins (‘Good to Great’, Random House 2001) puts it: to face the brutal facts. You can’t begin to address a challenge if you don’t dare to look and see that a challenge is there – and in both these leaders’ cases the reality that needs facing is that one human being can sustain only what one human brain and body can sustain
- To take care of yourself. If you get worn down, exhausted or burnt-out you are of no use to either yourself or those you lead, whatever the mountain you face together. It’s worth paying attention to the stress that manifests, and taking specific steps before it gets out of control (more regular exercise, building your mindfulness muscle, and spending more time with the people you love, for example). It’s critical to prioritise your wellbeing for both yourself and for those you lead: others can’t be expected to look after themselves if their leader isn’t looking after himself or herself.
Change delivery standards
It can be worth changing your relationship to the tasks facing you: this can mean changing your delivery standards (challenging, but not impossible, for those who aim for very high quality delivery), and changing your perception of, or assumptions about, what’s urgent, what’s important, what’s both, and what’s neither.
Make different use of your team
It’s also possible to change your relationship to those around you – to make different use of your team. It could be an investment to dare to invite someone else to volunteer for a task that you might have taken for granted that you’d do yourself, to invite team members to stretch into unfamiliar areas, or even to invite others from outside the team to take on unfamiliar tasks. Experimenting with joint problem solving, collaborative working and collective learning can be useful initiatives. All of these new steps can be attempted on a small scale, by creating safe-to-fail experiments, learning from them, and experimenting again.
Stay focused on your purpose
And finally, it can be resourcing and grounding to stay focused on what your purpose is as a team, and what your purpose is as its leader. Starting with this, you can redesign your strategy for achieving your purpose, using the resources you currently have, and excluding the resources you don’t have, even if you had them previously (face the brutal facts again). Build in efficiencies, and keep revisiting them. If you’re going to stay on track with your purpose, it’s crucial to lift your head from the endless slew of immediate tasks, and keep paying attention to what really matters.
We are in new times, and ‘normal’ isn’t what it was. We all need therefore to prioritise our self-care and have the courage to look through new lenses and do something different with what we see. We need to learn to look at ourselves honestly.