Why Self-care Is Essential to Leadership

Resilience is the ability to show up as your best self.

Time spent exercising is correlated with higher ratings of leadership effectiveness. Here, fellows take a break from the San Diego gathering to get moving on the basketball court.

Leadership is filled with high-pressure situations. Because stress is inevitable, the ability to tap into one’s best self under pressure is what often sets great leaders apart.

Resilience in the face of stress is tied closely to how well we are able to regulate our inner world – a skill that can become easier or more difficult depending on how well we take care of ourselves. It turns out that to be a strong leader, we need to prioritize ourselves. When we are at our best, we feel in control of our behaviors and can bring out the best in others as well.

How can we make sure we’re at our best?

Resilience and self-awareness start in our brain. Luckily, contemporary science tells us a lot about what makes our brains – and by extension, us – thrive. To charge our brains and be the best leaders we can be, we need to recognize that self-care is a necessity, not an indulgence. What that actually looks like in practice is different for every person, but there are some universal areas where we can concentrate our efforts.

1.  Sleep

Exhaustion is not a status symbol. Sleeping one less hour will not give us one more hour of productivity. Research suggests the opposite: even depriving ourselves of small amounts of sleep can significantly impact our productivity, our mental capacity and our health.

Simply getting enough sleep – between seven to nine hours each night for most people – is an underrated way of improving leadership. Lower stress levels, sharpened attention, strengthened memory, renewed ability to regulate emotions, and reinvigorated creativity are all reasons enough on their own to prioritize sleep.

2.  Physical

Recent research from the Center for Creative Leadership shows that regular exercise and effective leadership go hand-in-hand – something that may not be surprising, given the connectedness of mental and physical health.

A healthy lifestyle can help executives better cope with the stresses and demands of their positions. Time invested in nutrition and regular exercise, even if it means spending less time at work, is correlated with higher ratings of leadership effectiveness.

This doesn’t mean we need to find the time (and motivation) to block off hours of our day for regimented exercise. Instead, we can find little ways to increase our activity throughout the day: walking while talking on the phone, taking stretch breaks, parking at the far end of the lot and taking the stairs are all good places to start.

3.  Mental

Mental resilience is being able to focus and control our thoughts and attention, rather than let thoughts and distractions control us. The benefits of doing so go beyond simply responding well to a single stressful situation; focusing on the present moment without judgment improves both mental and physical health, as well as performance.

Practices such as mindfulness and meditation can help us strengthen this ability to clear our minds and focus on the present. We can also implement mindfulness teachings into our daily lives by finding positive ways to break negative thought cycles, and by avoiding multitasking, which pulls our attention in too many directions for us to be present.

4.  Social

Science is packed with studies that demonstrate how our social connections help us flourish – from lowering our physiological responses to stress, to stronger immune systems and psychological well-being.

Research also shows us that it is the quality of our social connections that makes us resilient, not the quantity. This means that self-care can be, in part, as simple as nurturing the relationships we already have.

5.  Emotional

Emotions have the power to help or hinder us as we face the challenges of leadership and everyday life. As leaders, it is especially important that we recognize the power of our emotions and their ability to create ripple effects on the people with whom we interact.

We can cultivate awareness of our own emotions by recognizing and labeling negative emotions, and then practicing mindfulness to respond appropriately. We can also nurture positive emotions by similarly noting and savoring them, as well as by intentionally dwelling on gratitude.

It’s important to recognize that self-care is a muscle that must be consistently stretched and strengthened – it is not a single act of pampering, it is the ongoing practice of creating healthy, brain-charging habits. By changing our perspective on self-care and agreeing to prioritize ourselves, we will be better prepared to lift up others in our lives.

Source: Center for Creative Leadership

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WKKF Community Leadership Network