This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
One of your most valued employees has requested a week of vacation to attend a family reunion in Ireland. It's during a very busy period, and you know the extra work will fall on you, but it means a lot to her. What do you do?
Your team needs a work plan by Monday in order to hit an aggressive launch schedule for a new product. You know that in order to get it to them you will need to work through the weekend and miss your son's soccer tournament. What do you do?
These situations are challenging to navigate because they represent moments in time when your three basic jobs as a leader are in conflict. What are the three jobs?
1. Take care of yourself – Maintain your mental and physical wellbeing and resilience.
2. Take care of your team – Build an engaging and growth-producing team environment.
3. Take care of the organization – Deliver results now, and build a strategy for the future.
Each of these jobs is vital. Put simply, however, it is not possible to do jobs 2 and 3 over any prolonged period of time if you don't take care of job 1. And yet, when the pressure is on, most high-performers default to the "heroic leader" who prioritizes the team and the organization over their own needs.
Many of us, and the organizations we work in, spend large amounts of time and money focusing on our sustainability practices; how we can ensure that we make wise use of the resources in our environment. And yet, at the same time, we fail to look at our own sustainability. Your energy is a finite resource – and taking care of it is just as important as the other resources we must manage.
It's admirable for leaders to "eat last" – but you need to make sure that you end up actually eating. Put another way: servant leadership is one thing, sacrificial leadership is another thing entirely.
Getting the balance right
Of course, focusing entirely on taking care of yourself is a great way to quickly find yourself out of work. There will be many times when you need to prioritize your team or your organization ahead of your own needs. You may want to grant that key person on your team their vacation, you may need to work through the weekend on that work plan.
The key is to identify when you have started to cross the line into sacrificial leadership. So, how do you know?
Physical strain – The first casualty of sacrificial leadership is often our body. If you find that you consistently lack energy, or have headaches, muscle tension or back pain with no obvious physical reason, it's very possible that this is a sign of a lack of balance.
Counterproductive behaviour – When we are engaged in sacrificial leadership for too long, we may try to restore balance by choosing behaviours that actually undermine us – binging on junk food, retail therapy, drinking alcohol, withdrawing from others or self-medicating. These can lead to dependency – thereby weakening rather than strengthening us.
Lingering emotions – The final warning sign is that your emotional responses to events at home and work linger long after they should – you stay "keyed up" too long after a tough meeting at work, or find that you're nervous or fidgety at times when you should be relaxed.
Think of these as the "engine lights" on your own personal dashboard. When they light up, it's time to take a step back and assess your own sustainability practices.
Looking out for No. 1
When you notice that one of your "engine lights" is on, there are four major areas for action:
Eliminate any stressors you can – We don't have control over all of the pressure in our lives, so when we do have control, it's important to exercise it. If the lawn is stressing you out, get someone to cut the lawn. If you're already in distress, don't approve that vacation to Ireland.
Make the time to build meaningful relationships – The Grant Study, a more than 75-year long longitudinal study out of Harvard University on what constitutes "the good life," has yielded many fascinating insights (I highly recommend this article in The Atlantic that goes into more depth). The biggest finding, according to study caretaker George Vaillant? "That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people."
Stay physically fit – Beyond the unequalled health benefits, physical fitness has been shown to increase mental acuity and productivity. This is not about training to run the Boston Marathon – but simply getting adequate sleep, eating well and engaging in regular physical activity.
Build inner resilience skills – I've written previously in the Leadership Lab on these practices and they can be broadly categorized into four areas: i) learn to be optimistic, ii) clarify and focus on what has meaning for you, iii) manage your energy to balance periods of exertion and recovery, and iv) align your inner "game film" with what you want, instead of what you don't want.
Keeping your three jobs in perspective – and not losing sight of job No. 1 – is the key to sustainable leadership. Everyone's balance is different; the main thing is to recognize the warning signs for you when they occur, and to take action instead of pushing through.