To lead is dangerous. Leadership comes from the root -leit, which means "to go forth" and "to die." When exercising leadership, burnout, neutralization and even assassination are always constant possibilities, Harvard Leadership Professor Ronald Heifetz reminds us.
To survive in this context, to continue making progress on adaptive challenges, requires not only listening to others and understanding the system, but also listening to and understanding your self. It means self-care. Self-care not as a luxury, not as something you do once the work is done, but ongoing, daily, essential-to-your-existence self-care.
One practice of self-care is to simply distinguish your roles and your Self. Heifetz and the field of Internal Family Systems, as well as others, teach us that we each embody many roles, yet these are not our Self. Perhaps you are a daughter or son, sister or brother, partner, or employee. Perhaps a friend, student, a cis-gendered person or trans, a person of color or a White person, the list goes on. Sometimes we identify so closely with a role -- say a CEO, for instance -- that we begin to think we ARE that role. When that happens, we take everything so personally, every failure, every shortcoming. We BECOME that failure and shortcoming. Yet this is just a role you are playing in the system you are in, it is not YOU. It is NOT PERSONAL. Create self-care practices to remind you of this -- have transition rituals between roles, such as a commute home from work, a change of clothes when you arrive home, a pause before going to your mother’s house. Having multiple strong roles in your life can also help you not take any one role too personally. You don’t have to quit your roles -- they are an essential part of your life and relationships and what it means to be human -- just know they are not you at your core.
What roles do you play? Which do you most closely associate with? What might you need to do to distinguish more between those roles and your self?
Another anchoring practice is to find confidantes. Adaptive Leadership teaches us that a confidante is someone who is outside the particular system you are in. They have no stake in the perspectives or factions related to a particular issue. For example, your mother could be a confidante for your work system, but not for your family system. Your co-worker might be a great person to complain to about your kid’s school, but not about your boss. Find people who will hold you as you cry, laugh with you about your embarrassments, listen as you rail against the injustices, and strategize with you as you try to make change -- all without their own stake in the game. A confidante only cares about you.
Who are your confidantes for your work life? For your home life? Where do you need another confidante?
Lastly, self-care involves anchoring practices and sanctuary. In Leadership on the Line Heifetz reminds us of this, drawing on years of ancient wisdom used in faith traditions, mental health support systems, and cultural spacemaking. Find places and practices that help you unwind and relax. Maybe that’s soccer practice, a meditation space at home, a garden, a journal, a bedroom where you ban all electronics. These are not practices that go on your “to-do” list, or become yet another burden on your time. They are also not luxuries for when you finish everything else. These help you do everything else with more love, intention, and clarity. These are rejuvenating moments where you can truly step out of your hectic life and just reset.
What are your anchoring practices? Where is your sanctuary? What will you do to create time and space for yourself to truly re-center?
You are not a luxury. Your body and mind and wellbeing are not to be taken for granted -- they are essential to your leadership.
Staying alive means more than just breathing and eating. It means staying alive to possibility, to your contributions on this planet, to the song beneath the words, to the creative energies that plant seeds and tend growth. And to stay that kind of alive, you need nourishment too.
Keep yourself alive.