Leaders: Fix your oxygen mask first

Author: Jo Geraghty, Co-Founder, Culture Consultancy

It goes without saying the past two years have been a whirlwind for most people and businesses. But November 2021 brought a lot into focus for me personally and professionally. We delivered client work and won new projects at an unprecedented rate for Culture Consultancy. I was in equal measure profoundly grateful to be busy during the horrors some businesses were experiencing mid-pandemic, but also precariously walked a tightrope of burnout.  

I worked long hours, nothing out of the ordinary, but this time I was juggling running the business, delivering for clients, maintaining the balance and wellbeing of the internal team and family life, virtually in a global pandemic. Everything came to a head in November when after repeatedly ignoring persistent back problems (there was always something more important) I found myself in total agony, unable to move, let alone work. The following six weeks are a haze of painkillers, horizontal zoom calls, MRIs and ultimately – back surgery.

I realised that I’d been on the treadmill of running the business, worrying more about clients and the team than myself. It wasn’t till I spent all of December recovering from the surgery that I had the space to realise what had happened.

Slowly, over the course of my career I had stopped listening to my body and wellbeing. I powered through. And while I enjoyed the journey, I forgot to put my physical health first which led to me being unable to service those clients and team members which I’d tried so hard to protect.

I know I’m not alone in putting clients, business, and team members before myself. In fact, according to research by DDI in 2021 60% of leaders feel completely ‘used up’ at the end of every workday. But while my journey to self-realisation was painful, it doesn’t have to be like that for all leaders. Here are some of the things I’ve learned in the past three months.

  • Be an empathetic leader. Empathy is a leadership skill in high demand. It’s one thing to be an empathetic leader to show your team kindness and compassion but it’s an art form to show yourself the same level of understanding.
  • Accept support. I am lucky to have an incredible and capable team. When I was out of action, they leapt into the void. I had to allow them to support me out of necessity, but before it gets to crisis point delegate and accept support from your wider team. You don’t have to do it all and nor should you.
  • Build sustainable resilience. After empathy, resilience is the next most sought-after leadership skill. However, it’s important to have realistic expectations of yourself. Resilience is not about you becoming a superhero. In fact, resourcefulness and drawing on other people, tools and tech can help you build resilience at work.
  • Invest in yourself. While many company founders and senior leaders understand the benefits of investing in training and upskilling their teams, often time, resource, and budget is not allocated to investing in themselves. Make a commitment to understand where you need to develop; this may be in softer wellbeing initiatives, mentoring or coaching rather than formal training.
  • Model behaviour. If you wouldn’t expect your team to do something, don’t expect it of yourself either. Of course, as leaders we take on more responsibility and accountability, but your actions set the tone for what is acceptable behaviour from your team. If you don’t want them to burn out, don’t let them witness it in you.
  • Set boundaries. It is OK to say no. In fact, it can be beneficial to you, your team ad your business. Agree what is acceptable and respect your own boundaries as well as those of your team.

I am making changes to how I work to ensure I never endure the pain (both physical and metaphorical) of not looking after myself again. I am shifting my working week to allow for time to work on my physical recovery and adding expertise to the core team to free up my resource to pursue future growth projects. I hope other business owners can learn from my self-realisation and put their own wellbeing first to become the best leader possible.

It’s time to embrace the known unknowns, by investing in your future leadership capability. Find out more about our leadership development.