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Today’s CEO

Empathy and Self-Care as Leadership Skills

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In a year that tested everyone’s mettle, the most successful leaders not only steered their organizations through daunting challenges. They also led by example with empathy, self-care, and attention to mental health—including their own.

It may seem counterintuitive when flight attendants ask passengers to put their oxygen masks on first before attending to their children. But it makes sense. You have to take care of yourself before you can care for others. The same is true for association CEOs, especially through the turbulence of 2020 and, presumably, the long road to recovery that lies ahead.

The past year has derailed a lot of conventional wisdom about work-life balance, self-care, and mental health. Working remotely was often seen as a “privilege” and perceived as an excuse to coast at home. With many people working longer hours than ever before—at home—that myth has almost certainly been debunked Likewise, employers often talked about employee mental health, but were they actively supporting it? Another misconception was that self-care was all about spa treatments and relaxation.

“Self-care is not an indulgence, it’s an investment,” says Christina Lewellen, CAE, executive director of the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools. “It is truly a leadership skill that CEOs need to master. Because if we don’t do it for ourselves, nobody is going to do it for us.”

In one study, 91 percent of CEOs said their company is empathetic, but only 68 percent of employees agreed. The study also found that 83 percent of Gen Z employees would consider leaving their current employer for a similar role at a more empathetic organization.

Prioritizing Mental Health

The multiple crises of 2020 have given additional heft and validity to the importance of mental health, to which race, gender, job position, and age are irrelevant. “Mental health and mental health issues do not discriminate,” says Barry Melancon, CPA, president and CEO of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

Whether leaders are paying attention is open to debate. Businessolver’s 2020 State of Workplace Empathy study found that 86 percent of CEOs say their organization is “openly discussing mental health,” but only 58 percent of employees agree.

At AICPA, however, mental health is a demonstrated priority. Melancon stepped up communication with staff around the world, offering a series of webcasts focused on mental health and highlighting AICPA’s global mental health benefit. He also gave staff a mental health day in November. He acknowledged that one day off would not solve everyone’s problems, “but we said, do not send emails. Do not call. If you have something scheduled, move it and do things that focus on your well-being.”

Leading by Example

When gyms in her area reopened, Lewellen wanted to get back to her workout routine, but the early-morning classes she usually attended were often full. So she opted for a class starting at 9:30 a.m. “I showed my staff that my family’s safety and my mental health and physical health were more important than what time it was in the day,” she says.

Leading by example shows employees that it’s all right to take time to care for themselves. “This is how CEOs need to lead today,” she says.

Employees are also seeing that CEOs are people, too. “My staff sees me in a ponytail and workout clothes, and I would have never let that happen before,” Lewellen says. “We’re closer now, but it’s not because of mandatory fun. It didn’t happen because of staff bowling day or birthday cake in the staff lounge. It is truly very transparent, genuine, real-people interaction.”

In the Businessolver study, 91 percent of CEOs said their company is empathetic, but only 68 percent of employees agreed. It might be time to make empathy a priority. The study found that 83 percent of Gen Z employees would consider leaving their current employer for a similar role at a more empathetic organization.

Lewellen is on board. “If you were not by nature an empathetic person and leader before, you have no choice now because it is in your face constantly,” she says. When people are working from home, their lives are on display—their pets, their children, the plumber—all of it. “It’s all just a big, jumbled mess,” she says. “Empathy is the only way we’re really surviving.”

She also recognizes that she has to trust her staff, who will benefit from the same flexibility she has exhibited. Too often, leaders’ statements about trust are lip service, she says.

“I don’t know what we’re afraid of,” she says, noting that being more flexible and trusting her employees have led to increased staff productivity.

Melancon, who formerly spent 200 days a year on the road, has been grounded by the pandemic at a single desk in one room. The experience has reminded him of earlier stages of his career, before he was a CEO, and made him more empathetic to those in other roles in his organization.

“As leaders, how we look after our organizations and things like mental health will be one of the two or three things people are going to judge us on,” he says. “That will be part of 2020 hindsight.”

Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now.

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