Calling All Leaders: Feed and Water Yourself

Once we step outside the framework of what previously constituted our work and realize that very little can get done well if leaders are misfiring because they don't have enough gas, we can redefine (and reprioritize) our work.
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I have been coaching leaders for a decade. During that time, the landscape has grown ever more turbulent: economic uncertainty, geopolitical instability, technological disruption, and social dislocation. Even our weather patterns are more volatile. As the gales of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction" intensify, we look long and hard for wise, effective leaders to help us navigate -- and learn to thrive -- amid all this change.

About five years ago, I started asking the following question of every group of executives with whom I was working: "How many of you missed your annual physical this year?"

The first time I did this informal survey it was with a group of doctors and other healthcare leaders; about a third of the 55 people in the room raised their hand. Since that time, this proportion has risen steadily; in a group I was coaching last fall, almost two-thirds of the 70-plus leaders "fessed up" to skipping this important medical appointment. The reasons offered are familiar to all of us. "I don't have time." "More urgent things need doing." "Every day is filled to the brim. How can I squeeze two hours in for a physical?" "I feel fine. This is not high on my list."

Choose your own favorite rationale, if indeed you, too, are part of the growing majority in this (admittedly unscientific) survey. The point is not to make any of us feel guilty, or to add another line-item to our "to-do" lists or, in the case of healthcare leaders, to rehash the irony of doctors and hospital administrators not practicing the basics of preventive medicine on themselves.

No, the big takeaway here lies at the heart of Arianna Huffington's new book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating A Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. In order to live our best life, play to our stronger selves and become the kind of leaders that the world so critically needs right now, we have to begin within. This means living, loving, working and leading from a place of well being, self-respect and thoughtfulness. The Third Metric that Adrianna offers us in Thrive is all about how to find this ground and make it your own.

With the MBA students I teach and the managers I coach, I try to explain why it is critical for each of them to take ownership of their own well-being. I often put it this way: the single most important thing individual leaders can do in order to move their respective missions forward is to feed and water themselves well. This feeding and watering involves everything from keeping a close eye on your long-term physical health (including getting a thorough exam each year) to eating and exercising mindfully each day to practicing discernment about the people with whom you choose to spend time to consciously nurturing your spirit--in and outside of the office.

Why is taking good care of yourself in these ways so vital? Because as the turbulence that leaders confront grows, the demands on leaders' thinking, emotions, physical condition and spirit also increase. And you cannot rise to these challenges; you cannot continue to effectively fight the daily fires even as you invest in your people, organizations and longer-run mission, if your resilience, energy levels, and emotional commitment are not as strong as possible. [

We all recognize the power of this simple truth. So why do so many leaders neglect their own individual feeding and watering? Because hour-by-hour, fire-by- daily-fire, we believe that the best, most important thing we can do is to do our work, especially when it involves taking care of the people for whom we are responsible. Picking up this gauntlet (over and over again) seems to crowd all kinds of other activity. And, of course, we rationalize this crowding out by telling ourselves that we "are taking one for the team" or "putting our people first."

Alas, there is something very much mistaken (and slightly martyred) about the mental games that so many of us play with ourselves. We ignore that keeping our own critical resources--endurance, emotional equanimity, credible idealism, positive energy, and physical health--well supplied is the foundation of everything else we do, including caring for others. This means that "our work," some of which only the individual leader can do, begins and ends with being healthy in the fullest sense of that word.

Think of it this way: if you become seriously ill with a preventable condition, what becomes of your mission, your organization and your people, not to mention your family? If you are getting through the days on a roller coaster of sugar and caffeine and little else, how likely is it that your energy levels are primed for peak performance? If you are working at full tilt each day of every week, how many mistakes do you catch yourself making?

Once we step outside the framework of what previously constituted our work and realize that very little can get done well if leaders are misfiring because they don't have enough gas or breaking down because they missed their tune-ups or allowing inadequate time for roadside rest stops, we can redefine (and reprioritize) our work. We will then put owning our individual well being the top of our lists, recognizing that thoughtful stewardship of ourselves is literally the best thing we can do for those we love and lead.

Below are a few small steps to consider as you try to feed and water yourself more effectively:

First, take stock of what is supplying your physical energy levels, including what you eat and drink throughout the day. This inventory is NOT about losing weight or giving up your favorite food. It is, instead, about stepping outside yourself and observing your own patterns to assess what is helping keep your physical energy levels as even as possible. Translation: small, numerous meals with protein and lots of water are sustaining and satisfying. Second translation: regular exercise, even in small doses, goes a long, long way (physically and emotionally).

Second, write up a short balance sheet of your emotional energy stocks. Who or what feeds your commitment levels and confidence and who or what siphons these assets away? Then aim to shore up the assets and decrease the liabilities by altering the people you choose to be with and the activities you undertake.

Third, create moments and places in which to recover. In ongoing turbulence, leaders must take sanctuary from the storms, as exciting (and seductive) as they often are. As Thrive demonstrates so clearly, we each need places in which we can turn off the pace and problems of the day. Such sanctuaries may take many forms--a walk in the sunshine during lunch, a book club discussion, drive time with your favorite rock n' roll blasting (rather than cell phone conversation or NPR). The form is less important than that you create room for such recovery every day.

Last, have a good think--and then a conversation with yourself--about what nourishes your spirit, about what offers you deep joy. This may or may not have a lot to do with your work. For example, I have encountered many high-powered executives who decided to take up long-cherished pursuits like learning to play the piano or beginning to dance the tango. Doing something outside the office--even on an infrequent though regular basis--was not easy for these busy, focused, driven people, who put work very high on their respective lists. But in virtually all of these examples, once the individual leader started doing something he or she had long dreamed of, interesting, very positive things started happening in the office. Teams started working better together. Productivity rose. Important but non-urgent projects began getting done. And so on.

Remember feeding and watering yourself pays big dividends. To everyone you care about, including yourself.

Parts of this article first appeared on the Athenahealth Leadership Forum.

Read more posts about Thrive from featured HuffPost contributors here.

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