For years, I laughed in the face of “woo-woo” stuff that the gurus of self-improvement have touted. Like many leaders, I tend to be a practical soul, driven by the external world and drawn to taking action. “Work hard and you get ahead,” the mantra of my upbringing, my Midwest location, and my soul has served me well.
More than a decade ago, I made the choice to work with leaders who were high potential — designated for bigger and better things in their organizations. These leaders are driven in a way that puzzles and sometimes concerns even me, though I share many of their traits. They are smart, fast-paced and fully aware of the limited number of spots available for only the very best leaders at upper levels in their complex and large organizations. They work hard. Often, I see “normal life” outside of work forsaken for the long hours, stress and the service they feel called to give to their company.
I’ve not seen statistics, but I have a sense that the divorce and break up rate is higher in this group of leaders than it may be elsewhere. Declines in health may be seen sooner or later. They struggle between what their company demands and their desire to spend time with families and friends. I’ve heard some of them say, “This company will take everything I give to it.” It’s true that many give everything they have.
And sometimes, there is nothing left for them. Things fall apart. Stress and long hours take a toll on broken families, illness and mental or emotional breakdowns.
So now I embrace the gurus who speak of having a life that is fully self-sustaining and supporting. I’ve seen the best and the worst of leadership through the eyes of those who live it, and I know that the choices a leader makes about how they spend their time impacts everything. When a choice (conscious or unconscious) is made to forgo self-care for the good of the organization they work at, it will affect their leadership. When they don’t notice that long hours and stress are taking their toll on their bodies and their minds, the way they lead cannot possibly be “great” in a sustainable way.
And then they may fail; not just as a leader, but in all areas of their life. Things can come crashing down.
I’ve come to realize that eventually, “giving your all” for work in a way that obliterates the other important areas of life (family, friends, healthy habits, spirituality, etc.) will likely catch up to you. Maybe not today, tomorrow, or next week, but eventually. If you want to make an impact on the world, you need to pay attention to what you are doing to yourself.
So do a check-in with yourself on a regular basis:
Health: Am I getting enough sleep? Am I eating well feeling healthy? Do I get enough exercise?
Friends and family: Do I make and schedule time to be with those I love and those who love me? Is my life outside of work gratifying and energizing? Is it enough to keep me grounded?
Downtime and vacation: Do I have enough downtime to recharge my batteries and be the best leader I can be? Do I take all of the vacation my company provides? Can I unplug and enjoy the moments I’m away from work? Are there hobbies/pursuits outside of work that I pursue that are interesting and fulfilling to me?
Intellectual: Am I doing what I need to do to keep myself intellectually stimulated? What do I need to stretch my brain and “sharpen the saw” beyond what I’m doing now?
Spiritual pursuit: Is my spiritual life where I want it to be? What’s missing in this arena, and how might I pursue my spiritual journey in new and challenging ways?
This isn’t just “woo-woo” stuff. If you want to be the best leader you can be, you need to also take care of your life outside of work. When you do, you’ll find that you will be a more effective leader; things get done well in less time, with less stress and with more care.
Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 10 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages large-scale corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.