Effective leadership begins with the self. It’s not an overstatement to say that our efficacy as leaders is determined by our ability to bring our best to our work, and this means starting with self-leadership and self-care. But what does this look like in practice?
While we hear terms like “self-care” frequently, we rarely take the time to consider what this means. For each of us, it can look quite different. More than this, achieving a level of equilibrium through a recognition of our own needs isn’t something we can achieve through a single action, but rather comes through small, daily habits. These may feel insignificant in isolation, but small behaviour changes can have a big impact on our perspective and overall wellness. Better habits enable us to operate at our most effective capacity levels.
Asking for the best from ourselves lately is no small feat. In the stressful environment of the COVID world, both at work and at home, it is easier than ever to slip into unhealthy coping mechanisms. But it is now, more than ever, that healthy habits will benefit our lives and our work.
Finding equilibrium and creating the best versions of ourselves does not need to be a complex process. First, take a quick inventory of your current state of mind and physical health. What is one thing you would like to improve? Better mental health, more energy, a deeper sense of work-life balance, or better sleep? Pick one and make some changes that will improve your satisfaction by even 10%. Concrete actions will catalyze steady movement toward those goals and small wins create momentum to keep going.
Taking Care of the Body & Mind
When I consult with people in leadership positions, my fundamental process is based on an exploration of the whole person, rather than just one facet of their life. I ask them to consider how they are looking after themselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I will often begin this process by specifically thinking about physical and mental energy.
When I talk about physical energy, I am not just talking about exercise, but rather more holistic care of the body. What we eat and drink on a daily basis, the quality of our sleep as well as the amount we get our bodies to move (rather than sit) sets us up for good or poor health. Whether you are interested in prevention or healing, the bottom line is this: we need to learn how to take care of ourselves better, think about what we are eating and drinking, and consider how we are resting and restoring. The physical realities of bad habits - feeling sick, tired, apathetic, etc. - have reverberating implications in the rest of our lives. Beginning with healthy physical habits can be a vital initiating step to bringing our best selves to our work and relationships.
My initial recommendations are to start slow. Make small changes: replace something you eat that comes in a package and contains chemical ingredients with a natural, single-ingredient food; introduce one vegetarian meal per week; start your day with a cleansing glass of lemon water; go to bed an hour earlier once in awhile; or go for a ten minute walk whenever you can fit it into the day. The shifts don’t have to be earth-shattering to be life-changing. Subtle changes can make a big difference.
Do you wake up feeling refreshed and alert? Related to physical wellness is our mental energy: a desire to imagine, learn, problem-solve, create and make decisions. If you have brain fog or fatigue, your thoughts may feel scattered or unclear or you may find it challenging to perform cognitive tasks at optimal levels. You might find decision making difficult or have to read things several times to comprehend the message. Stress makes this worse. We are human beings and often we bring our shortcomings (and our less-than-professional behaviour) to our work in the family enterprise; it is tough to be present, to listen, and lead others if you are caught up in your own mental stress or are feeling the effects of anxiety, depression or overload in general. In order to rejuvenate your mental energy, learning to quiet the mind and turn off the internal chatter or negative self-talk is a powerful place to start.
Our minds are also affected by what we put into our bodies. I can’t overstate how important it is to stay hydrated: try to drink half your body weight in ounces of water each day. If you weigh 160 pounds, that’s 80 ounces of water (and caffeinated beverages don’t count; they actually work against you). Food sensitivities can play a role here as well. Many people have no idea how much dairy, gluten and food additives may actually be impacting them.
Mental energy is also a question of managing our attention (which is different from time management). What are you allowing yourself to focus on? Are you being intentional or allowing yourself to be distracted by social media, constant emails and text messages, and/or calls from people who need something from you? Manage your distractions. If you are mentally grounded, you can shift from being reactive and scattered to being focused and attentive. To this end, I often suggest starting the day taking 5-10 minutes to focus on yourself before you look at your phone or computer and start reading emails, and making yourself available to others. Those first 10 minutes can be used to have your coffee (or lemon water!), take a quick walk, do some deep breathing/meditation, and focus on what is important to you so you can prioritize and set your intentions. Throughout the day, if you are becoming overwhelmed, take a 5-10 minute break to allow you to refocus. These small changes of refocusing and regrounding transform how we approach our interactions - with ourselves and everyone around us - over time.
Taking Care of the Heart & Soul
Establishing healthy habits for the body and mind are key, but so is finding equilibrium in our emotional and spiritual selves. In our professional worlds, we often overlook the importance of our emotional and spiritual energy.
Emotional energy is about our relationships with each other, our families, friends, even our pets - those we love. Relationships fuel us emotionally, and are what allow us to give and receive with others. Humans are social animals, with a need to interact. There is extensive research on how our social relationships impact our health and development.
Rejuvenating your emotional self comes down to doing whatever brings you joy. Be kind to yourself. Reach out and connect with others, share a laugh with a friend, let someone know how much they mean to you, and let others do things that show their love for you. This can look like setting up some chairs on a driveway for a socially distant visit with neighbours, taking a walk with your partner, having a zoom coffee break, playing with a pet, or completing a random act of kindness. These connections work on a physiological level to relieve stress and increase happiness. And when we are in a positive state, we are better able to manage everything else we have on our plate.
Finally, spiritual energy is about your purpose or mission, and often relates to our feelings of connection to something bigger than ourselves. What is the difference you want to make in this world? Your spiritual self provides a link to your creative energy, to new ideas and insights, and to your inner wisdom. For some, this is where clarity and strategic insights reside. Rejuvenating your spiritual self can be achieved in many ways - from reaching a zen state of internal peace to doing something that fuels your creative energy. In this state, you are more open to ideas and possibilities. You find yourself in a state of curiosity rather than judgement, and are more available to see and hear things differently or ask new questions. You get out of your own way to focus on the bigger picture.
Strengthening your spiritual self is unique to each individual. For some this is a religious experience, of practicing your faith and engaging in prayer. For others, this is achieved through yoga, meditation, a walk in nature or a creative pursuit like art, music or dance. The spiritual self reconnects you with your purpose, and it is a good idea to take time, maybe once a quarter, to take stock of the impact that you are having in your life, and to refocus your attention on what matters to you most.
I am all about finding easy ways to improve our health and enhance our well-being. These entail adding a few new habits, to become more of the person that you want to be, in your business and professional life, at home, and in your community. Self-care and self-leadership are not solely about bringing your best to your family and your business, they are about achieving who you want to be in your world.
Laura Barton is a Family Enterprise consultant and leadership coach with over 20 years experience. She specializes in improving communication, strengthening team dynamics, and building relationships across family enterprise systems. By incorporating holistic wellness with her practice, Laura facilitates the comprehensive personal and professional wellbeing of those that she serves, and fosters leadership efficiency.