Why Self-Care for Leaders Isn’t Selfish

2020 has been a lot. To escape burnout, execs need to learn how to set aside the day’s crises and make time for themselves.

Thanksgiving is this week, and with it comes an opportunity to take a breather in what’s been a very stressful year.

That’s easier said than done, of course, because the stressors are still all around us. COVID-19 vaccines are on the way, but we’ve entered a season of rising cases. The election is over, but the political tensions that preceded it haven’t eased. And the economy is still very unsettled: A survey by Chief Executive magazine found that CEO confidence levels are about as low as they were during the spring pandemic spike.

When you are able to be at your best, you truly do make better choices—for you and for others.

I’ve written a few times during the past few months about the importance of showing empathy to your employees during this year. But it’s just as important to give yourself the same kind of attention. In 2018, when all of this didn’t feel quite so fraught, I spoke with association executives about how they were practicing self-care. The key lesson was that leaders need to be unapologetic about taking time for themselves—the spa days, reading days, and other mindfulness practices aren’t escapes from work, but part of doing an executive’s work well.

“In the executive director role, you can give so much of yourself to the board, to the volunteer leadership, and to the staff,” said Shawn Boynes, FASAE, CAE, executive director of the American Association for Anatomy. “And then there’s nothing left for you.”

Earlier this month, my colleague Ernie Smith gathered some thoughts from association executives about how they’re practicing self-care during the pandemic. A lot of walking and hiking has proven to be a good thing these days.

But a lot of the work can also be done internally—if we can convince ourselves to do it. In an article earlier this month in Harvard Business Review, “Self-Compassion Will Make You a Better Leader,” mindfulness experts Rich Fernandez and Steph Stern point out that executives tend to resist self-care practices. They “mistakenly avoid self-compassion, believing that it means being easy on yourself and will lead to being complacent.” But the upsides are plentiful: Self-care develops resilience, a growth mindset, improved accountability, higher emotional intelligence, and the kind of compassion that improves performance from teams.

So perhaps it’s better to think of self-care less as being easy on yourself and instead as doing important work on yourself as a leader. Fernandez and Stern have some suggestions for what that work looks like, from short meditation practices to longer activities like writing a letter to yourself about your challenges and how you can get through them. Taking the time to do that is a useful way to escape the habit of thinking about your stressors and instead focusing on your skills and what you’ve accomplished.

And, if you’re in an executive role, your skills and accomplishments are substantial. In a recent Fast Company podcast, University of Texas-Austin professor Art Markman recommends making short diary entries of what you’ve accomplished every day, because “even though you may feel that you’ve accomplished very little at the end of each day, all of us are doing more than we realize.”

Experts often talk about the importance of developing soft skills as a leader, but those leaders aren’t often encouraged to apply those skills to themselves.

“Right now, in this very moment, ask yourself a question: ‘What do I need?’” leadership consultant Janice Marturano recently wrote at Forbes. “Listen deeply to the answer that arises and put it on the top of the list and make space for it on the calendar. When you are able to be at your best, you truly do make better choices—for you and for others.”

The holidays in a stressful year provide an opportunity to remember that self-care isn’t selfish.

(Chinnapong/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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