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Why being conscious is essential for the mental health of leaders

Most leaders face the same problems. Their workload is vast. They have complex problems to solve. They have to work at pace. They have a lot of people depending on them. They are constantly having to respond to change. And then they have a personal life. Whether it’s their partner, the kids, an extended family, or their own health to take care of, it can be a lot for any leader to deal with.   

Over recent years, we’ve heard a lot about wellbeing and how we need to make sure that people are taken care of at work. Yet it really starts with the leader. To some extent, leaders must ‘put on their own oxygen mask’ in order for their team to have a licence to do the same. Yet when you are the person who carries the burden of responsibility for delivery, when you need every moment of the day to get the job done, and when you must stay strong, how do leaders take care of themselves? And if leaders are meant to be resilient, why do they need to pay so much attention to their wellbeing in the first place? 

Don’t confuse stamina with resilience 

A lot of the work that I do is around just this. The misconception that resilience is about staying on the treadmill, powering through regardless and keeping your chin up despite the raft of challenges you face. That is not what resilience is. In simple terms, it is being able to bounce back and ‘get back on your horse’ when things are tough. However, if you are switched on constantly and travelling at 100 miles an hour, when your horse bucks you, you’re going to get hurt. In contrast, if you take your horse on the racetrack once or twice a day, and the rest of the time you allow them to trot, rest, feed, and sleep, that racehorse is going to be fitter and ultimately, they will be more resilient. 

I speak to many leaders who are struggling. They are exhausted. If they aren’t exhausted, they are stressed. They feel under tremendous pressure. They feel as though they have to be all things to all people, and they carry a heavy burden. It naturally drives certain behaviours and thoughts.  

·      Long hours and an inability to switch off from work 

·      A lack of ‘presence’ in life outside of work

·      Underlying anxiety (often driven by a fear of failure)

·      Overcommitting to others 

·      Over reactions and charged emotional responses

·      Unhelpful assumptions about other people’s behaviour

·      Limited time for reflection and learning 

As you can imagine, when you are behaving like this you’re not at your best and to some extent, you are in fact compromising your wellbeing and definitely your performance. These responses are just that, unconscious responses to our environment. Rarely would we prefer to stay connected to work at all times, unable to switch off. We want to have fun with those we love and engage in what’s important to them, but we struggle to. We don’t want to feel stressed or anxious about things going wrong or about what people think of us – but it just happens. Much of our energy gets used up in this world of ‘unconscious response’ and when we get home at the end of the day (or leave our home office), we wonder why we’re tired. Yet with all of this going on under the surface, no wonder we feel drained. 

Learning about yourself eases the burden

If much of our underlying stress is driven by limiting beliefs, assumptions, limited headspace, and our own daily choices, the good news is that there is something we can do about it. We assume that we have limited ability to change the way that we are feeling or to remove some of the pressure we’re under. The irony is that the work itself, the targets, the KPIs, the change we’re managing, they are just a part of the story. The way we manage and lead ourselves and the extent to which we are conscious about it, is the other part. When we pay more attention to our responses, to the beliefs that are driving us, and to the way that we work, we can take control of ourselves and our lives. 

We are scared of failure

In many of the Conscious Leadership workshops that I run leaders talk about their fear of failure. They are so paralysed by the fear of getting things wrong, letting people down and being seen as incompetent (we often refer to this as imposter syndrome), that they work themselves into the ground. There is of course an upside to this fear. It drives us to perform, it keeps us focused, and it makes us work hard. There is a major downside though. When we are driven by a fear of failure, it creates a low-level anxiety that permeates our being. That undermines our ability to make good decisions. That can even make us question our abilities, and that puts us under a lot of pressure. What’s also interesting, is that it’s often the people who consistently perform well, who are the most debilitated by this fear. 

And when it comes to our mental health, weeks, months, and years or this worry is no good for us. It can affect both our physical and our mental health through pumping too much cortisol into the system. So, the question I often ask people is ‘what is driving the fear in you’? When we take a step back and try to make sense of what is unconsciously driving our behaviour, we can see where it stems from, why we do it, and whether it’s helping or hindering us. When we shift our focus from one of fear to faith, when we know that we will deliver through staying focused, through understanding what matters most, through paying attention to where we spend our time, through collaborating with others and asking for help, and through learning from our mistakes, we channel our energy in a more effective way. We move from fear to solutions. 

Leaders cause ripple effects 

Unfortunately, when leaders are under pressure, when they feel stressed, and when they lack awareness, it causes ripple effects in the team, whether we like it or not. I see this happening a lot. Leaders often don’t recognise the impact of their own behaviour, not only on themselves but on the wellbeing and performance of the team. Here are a few examples:

·      Do as I say, not as I do

The leader who emails at night and weekends and tells the team not to respond – not realising the pressure that this puts on the team who want to do the best job to deliver. 

·      Don’t work long hours (but still deliver the work)

The leader who expects the work to get done, often at a high standard, and who creates a tsunami of work, yet who constantly tells the team to work less hours and take care of their wellbeing. 

·      You’ve got total flexibility, but I expect you ‘in’

The leader who wants to provide flexibility to the team to allow them to get the right balance yet gets stressed or asks too many questions when someone then tries to take care of conflicting priorities and needs time off. 

·      We all make mistakes (just try not to make any on my watch) 

The leader who encourages the team to learn from mistakes yet reacts in a negative way when people get anything wrong or when bad feedback is received. 

·      We are doing good work, so we need to work harder

The purposeful leader who recognises the importance of the work being done by the team but pushes too hard to make sure it happens. 

·      It’s OK not to be OK – but I am always OK

The leader who encourages people to speak up about the things that are challenging them yet never show any signs of weakness themselves. 

Do you recognise this behaviour in yourself? Have you considered the impact these ‘double signals’ could be having on the team? Getting the balance right at work is hard. Generally speaking, people want to do a good job, they are conscientious and so want to deliver, or they have the same fears as leaders – they don’t want to fail. At worst, they don’t want to lose their jobs or to be performance managed. Unless as leaders we recognise the impact of our unhealthy behaviours, not only on ourselves but on our teams, we risk the performance of everyone. What are the double signals that you are sending to your team? 

The secret to mental fitness

We have known for a long time that taking care of our bodies, doing regular exercise, keeping junk food and alcohol to a minimum, drinking plenty of water, and getting lots of good sleep are good for us. What we’ve had very little education about over the years is how to take care of our mental health. No amount of running gets rid of the beliefs that limit us. You can’t ‘press up’ your way into better working habits, and yoga and fruit are good for us but don’t allow us to see the impact of our behaviour on ourselves, our family and our teams. 

This is why we must become more conscious of ourselves - more aware of our behaviour and thinking, in order to make better day to day choices about how to live and lead. We have to be able to critically assess ourselves and ask ourselves these questions, being honest about the answers.

·      Do I consistently have enough energy to do a great job at work?

·      Do I put a healthy level of pressure on myself (and my team) to deliver?

·      Am I driven by healthy motivators (fear is not a healthy motivator)?

·      Do I work hard to get the balance right between work and rest / play?

·      Do I allow myself plenty of time for self-reflection and personal learning?

·      Do I intentionally learn from my experiences and mistakes? 

·      Do I speak to myself in a positive way and show myself self-compassion? 

There are many ‘conscious questions’ that we can ask ourselves to get to the truth of how we feel and how we behave. If your answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, then you should consider the reason why. Only through paying attention to yourself and the way you feel, can you hope to be at our best more often. This is not a nice to have. For leaders to function well, for themselves and their teams, it’s a have to have. Not only will it help the way you feel but it will also help you to avoid burnout, to develop yourself as a leader, and to develop yourself as a person.

Leaders must take better care of themselves

Leaders must take charge of their lives and recognise that they have agency. They must hold themselves to account and recognise the importance of self-compassion and self-care. They must be happy with ‘good enough’ (at least sometimes) and they shouldn’t confuse resilience for stamina. Neither should they put responsibility on others to manage our time, it’s their responsibility to stay in control of what they do every day. That means being intentional about it. 

As leaders, we must find the balance. We should be preserving ourselves by opting out. We have to be able to press pause. To be conscious of how we operate. We need to be deliberate. We have a responsibility as leaders, to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of our people. We are doing others a disservice if we don’t. We set the bar very high and we try to be everything to everyone. Yet how can we be kind to ourselves? How can we become more conscious so that we can live and lead ourselves and others to a better life?

For more information about the Conscious Leader Diagnostic © coaching and workshops that we run, please get in touch natasha@conscious-works.com.

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