Leaders Also Need Compassion and Self-Care

Self-care begins with you. The most important person to lead is yourself. When you invest in your own well-being, you inspire others around you to do the same.

A few months ago, I hosted a Virtual Leadership Summit in which I interviewed more than 20 thought leaders. My questions had to do with how leadership might change as a result of the pandemic. One important conclusion was that leaders need to take care of themselves.

I interviewed Rebecca Zucker, executive coach and founding partner of Next Step Partners, and she shared this story. “Lisa” was SVP of Strategy at a company that was struggling—its stock price had taken a real hit in recent months. Lisa made a presentation to the Board and got pummeled with questions she hadn’t anticipated. She was reactive, and the meeting did not go well.

Afterward, Lisa ruminated endlessly, replaying the meeting over and over again in her mind, beating herself up each time. She was not able to step back and (1) process this painful experience so she might prepare and respond differently the next time she gets questions that could put her on the defensive, and (2) give herself some compassion—that she had tried her best and no one is perfect in life and in work. Ultimately, she learned to be kinder to herself and recognize she is not the only person who has experienced this type of situation. If it had been someone on her team, she would have been more understanding and forgiving than she was on herself.

Put on Your Own Mask First

While it is easy to be hard on ourselves and focus on taking care of others, leaders need to care for themselves first. We need to remember to follow the oxygen mask directions: “Put on your own mask first before assisting others.”

In order to take care of ourselves, the most common advice is also common sense. We need to eat right, get enough sleep, and make sure to exercise. Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga are also recommended practices. These actions all promote improved health and well-being. They are linked to having better moods, higher energy, increased focus.

During this pandemic, anxiety, stress, and uncertainty are at all-time highs. We know we should be taking better care of ourselves. So what is holding us back from even common-sense self-care?

According to a recent article in Harvard Business Review by Palena Neale, leaders are too tough on themselves and need to reframe how they think of caring for themselves. Neale says her clients often have three main excuses for resisting self-care. To overcome these excuses, she asks questions to help them reframe their thinking.

1. “Self-care is new-age nonsense.”

  • How would you feel differently if you focused on your diet, sleep, and exercise?
  • What could you stop, start, or continue doing right now that would improve your mental and physical health?

2. “I don’t have enough time.”

  • What are the key priorities in your life? Can you achieve them without health and well-being?
  • How much time could you save by responding from a place of control and calm rather than reacting from stress?
  • What is one thing you can choose to say, “No,” to today that you would not miss and there would be few negative consequences?

3. “I’m a strong leader. I shouldn’t need self-care.”

  • If your leader was struggling with stress, what would you advise this person to do?
  • How has taking some time for yourself benefited you or your team in the past?
  • If you just wanted to recharge your battery—what would you do?

There could not be a better time to focus on self-care while also caring for others. These times are calling for leaders to be empathetic, compassionate, and understanding. To get started, remember these points:

  • Acknowledge resistance to self-care in order to overcome it.
  • Make it your own, but be consistent and intentional.
  • Start small, but start.
  • Explore and experiment. Try different activities to see what works for you.
  • Be a role model for others.

Ask Yourself These Daily Questions

  • How would I like to take care of myself today?
  • How would I like to be responsible today?
  • What would a good day look like?
  • What would good work look like today?

Self-care begins with you. The most important person to lead is yourself. You are the CEO of you! Make sure you use the tools you need to become a happier, healthier person and leader. When you invest in your own well-being, you inspire others around you to do the same.

Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, coach, and leadership development and change management consultant. Her most recent book is “Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts” (ATD, 2013). For more information, visit http://www.JannFreed.com.

Jann E. Freed
Jann E. Freed, PhD, is an author, speaker, coach, and leadership development consultant. Her forthcoming book is “Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering” (Routledge Publishing, 2023). For more information, visit http://www.JannFreed.com