Why Leaders Should Put Their Oxygen Masks on First

It’s safe to say that 2020 was a train wreck (or a plane crash, to keep on point with the metaphor). You can’t look away, can’t get off, and it just keeps going down.

And it remains to be seen what 2021 will bring, but let’s say the storming of the capital doesn’t put us off to a great start.

And yet, you need to grow your company and keep margins up. Life, and business, go on.

Remaining at the top of your leadership game in a sustained crisis, the likes of which most of us are experiencing for the first time, is a Herculean feat. We know that a good leader provides support and encouragement, unblocks sticking points, and communicates authentically. And all of these things require a deep well of emotional reserve and fortitude.

But, leaders are people too. And you can get so stuck in the doing, in the keeping of balls in the air that you don’t realize you are suffocating, that you’re on the verge of burn out. When you’re not taking care of yourself, it’s tough to take care of others and to provide all those requirements above for good leadership. It’s impossible to help your team put on their oxygen masks if you’re crumpled in your seat gasping for air.

Kim Scott’s management philosophy of Radical Candor asks us to care personally while challenging directly. This philosophy purports that we’re exhibiting effective, compassionate leadership by doing both. These things take energy and restraint—lots of it.

To be there for your team, to be ready to handle whatever 2021 will bring, you’ll need to ensure you’ve got the reserves to do it. You’ve got to have lungs full of oxygen, so you can breathe deeply and reliably, whatever the circumstances.

You may not think that how you show up will even be noticed by your team; much less affect them significantly. You might think your mood and your energy levels won’t be scrutinized, given everything else going on. But in most workplaces, you’d be wrong.

Employees look to leaders for all sorts of cues. If you’re in a bad mood, they may be wondering if layoffs are coming rather than simply that you didn’t get enough sleep. If you’re terse or accidentally gruff, they may be wondering if they’ve done something wrong.

Now, instead of spending their remaining energy focusing on the work, you’ve unintentionally created a situation in which you’re trying to wade through the signals you didn’t even realize you were sending.

This is why, as a leader, it’s imperative to prioritize self-care. And you must put your oxygen mask on first. Anything less can cause unanticipated, adverse downwind effects that undermine both morale and productivity.

Now, when you put your oxygen mask on first, two important things will happen:

  1. You will have the resources required to get to work supporting your team
  2. You will be leading by example

If you want to show up as a resilient leader willing and able to shepherd your team through this continued crisis, here’s are some simple steps you can take to put your oxygen mask on first.

Prioritize Sleep

You’re likely not one of those people who needs less sleep than the rest of us. Many people think they need less sleep, but they’ve gotten used to not being at peak performance. You likely need between 7-9 hours of sleep a night, just like the vast majority of adults the world around. If you’re not getting at least 7 hours a night, set a bedtime alarm right now to give yourself an 8-hour “sleep opportunity window.”

The effects of sleep deprivation on the body and brain are vast and well documented (from increases in cancer risk to decreased productivity, decision-making skills, accuracy, and mood). Matthew Walker’s seminal book, Why We Sleep, is a treasure trove of such research.

But you likely don’t even need the hard stats to back this up. You know from experience that when you’ve had a night of poor sleep, you’re cranky, more likely to snap at others, and you find it difficult to concentrate. These are not the qualities of a compassionate leader, but they aren’t moral failings either. The simple antidote is more sleep.

Exercise Regularly

You know it’s vital for your body, but it’s likely more important for your mental health. Exercise has been clinically proven to relieve symptoms of depression in study after study.

Now, you may not be depressed, but studies show that “exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function” regardless of the prior mental state.

Anecdotally, you’re probably familiar with the “runner’s high” or the sense of both calm and accomplishment you get after a good sweat session.

Set Boundaries

COVID quarantine has caused us to rethink and recreate the boundaries between work and home. It may take more effort to intentionally create such limits, but it’s also essential. Downtime, time spent not actively thinking about work, actually increases productivity and creativity.

So think about what realistic boundaries look like for you. Maybe it’s not checking email after 8 pm, or perhaps it’s turning off notifications on weekends. Define and stick to boundaries that protect whatever balance is right for you.

And remember, your team will look to your actions, regardless of what you say. If you send emails at 2 am, they’ll infer you expect them to answer.

Do a Body Scan

Take care of your in-the-moment, physical needs. If you’re feeling unfocused or just a little snappish, run through a body checklist:

  1. Are you hungry? (Get a protein-rich snack.)
  2. Are you thirsty? (Drink a glass of water.)
  3. Are you tired? (Take a power nap.)
  4. Are you restless? (Walk around the block or up and down the stairs a few times.)

ReAdjust Expectations

Are you expecting, of yourself and others, the same level of productivity when working from home while Zoom schooling your kids as you were pre-pandemic? Is that reasonable? When circumstances change, so must our expectations if we don’t want to burn out.

Figure out how to ensure that top priorities are attended to, and cut yourself and everyone else some slack on the rest.

Ask for What You Need

It’s ok to be vulnerable. People trust us more, not less, when we show vulnerability. So if you need something (i.e., 2 hours of head’s downtime, help with a project, etc.), ask for it. Not only will you help yourself, but you’ll also be showing your employees that it’s ok, and even expected, to need a little help every once in a while.

“Do what I say, not what I do.” It didn’t work for our parents, it doesn’t work for our kids, and it won’t work in the workplace either. By making sure to take care of yourself, to put your oxygen mask on first, you’re modeling the types of resilient behavior you want to cultivate on your team, and you’re standing in integrity. You are walking the walk, talking the talk, and ensuring that you have the internal reserves to help others put their oxygen masks on as well. And in doing so, we’ll all still be breathing when we emerge from this crisis.

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