Stay Golden – Look after #1
Leaders I’ve experienced broadly fit into 2 categories – the self-serving and those who serve others. The self-serving range from the truly narcissistic to those who simply don’t care for others and use their authority to simply advance their own wealth, power or status. Mercifully, they are a small minority. The majority, by far, are genuinely trying to do their best – whatever their ability – for their people and the enterprise. And often, without having in place the right checks and balances, they do so to the point of their own detriment or demise.
“By working faithfully eight hours a day, you might eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day” – I remember discovering this quote by Robert Frost very early in my career, and only gradually realising the truth of it in what I steadily witnessed as time progressed. Many years later – post-pandemic – we are sadly surrounded by burnout in our workforce. What is significant is how a Gallup poll reflects that the brunt of burnout has been borne by leaders or managers. It found that while the percentage of non-managers reporting burnout remained fairly constant (and in some cases even decreased) in 2021, the survey found that manager burnout increased 7.5% throughout last year. This is barely surprising when you consider the result of a post-pandemic temperature poll we’ve been running with our own client leaders who are pretty unanimous about three things : the world is far less certain place than before Covid; there is no road-map for how to be a leader in this environment; their workforce is struggling more now than they can ever remember. I mean, really, who would want the responsibility of leading right now?
Yet, leadership is and has always been about finding a way to move forward, in spite of the circumstances. What is also true is that the single biggest influencer on any team performance is the leader. The speed of the leader is always the speed of the group. And a lame duck affects the flock.
The delicate challenge of leadership is : how do you do the best for the enterprise and your people, whilst not doing the worst for yourself? The Simon Sinek book applauds the idea that “Leaders Eat Last”. That’s all very well, but they at least need to eat!
Aesop’s fable summarises the dilemma. A struggling farmer discovers one morning that his goose has laid a golden egg. He takes the egg to market and sells it for a handsome sum. The next day the goose lays another golden egg. This continues daily and the farmer quickly becomes rich. However, the farmer starts to become greedy and impatient and becomes dissatisfied with just one egg a day. The idea comes to him that if he kills the goose he could get all the eggs at once. But when he killed the goose, he discovered there were no more eggs – and meanwhile his precious goose was dead.
Stephen Covey defines this in more clinical terms when he describes the P/PC balance : where we need to constantly balance what we produce (P) with our capacity to produce it (PC). For example, if you have a car which you constantly wash, polish, service but rarely drive, you are preserving its capacity but it is underutilised. However, if you never care for the car and continually drive it, sooner or later it will break down.
As a leader we need to take care of our own PC – our own Golden Goose – because the stakes are so high if we don’t. A primary role of the leader – particularly today – is that of care-giver, but your ability to care is sorely compromised if you don’t care for yourself. In short, you need to put your own oxygen mask first.
In practical terms it boils down to two things : Demands and Resources. If the demands on you are too high and your resources (to cope) too few then you are killing the goose. The good news about this is that, rather than being frozen with overwhelm, by quantifying your situation in this way it means the power and choice to do something resides with you. This is important because the feeling of not having control (or the illusion of control) is, in itself, a core source of stress.
The three things I advise leaders to reduce Demands are to Question/Say No; Prioritise; and Delegate. I frequently see leaders fall down in these areas – and often all three simultaneously and watch them steadily deplete their own resources and kill their own goose. This is the leader who says Yes to requests without questioning or pushing back; tries to do and feels responsible for doing everything without prioritisation, and is consumed by things that really should be done by someone else. So, to reduce Demands ask yourself : Why are we doing this? Does it really need to be done now? Does it really need to be done by me? It’s amazing how these three questions, asked honestly, cut through so much unnecessary toil and labour. However, it does come with one caveat. These questions, asked honestly, inevitably lead to conversations. Often uncomfortable conversations. Conversations that the leader has typically avoided, which is often why they are in the situation of overwhelming demands in the first place.
So if that’s the Demand side, what can we do to swell our own resource, enhance our Production Capacity (PC) and keep our own Goose Golden? Most leaders are familiar with the idea of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) – these are the fundamentals that, at a glance, can tell us about the commercial health of our enterprise. I recommend you create the equivalent for your own personal wellness. I’ve labelled them KSIs (Key Sanity Indicators). These are the core bases that, if they are covered for you, put you in the best state to deal with slings and arrows of life. You first need to identify what they are for you – as we all need to be nourished differently. The first area to consider is anything that impacts your Physical Energy – nutrition, diet, sleep, exercise. The second is Security – anything that makes you feel safe financially and psychologically. The third is Connection – who are the people that most matter in your life and how connected you feel to them. The fourth is Renewal – hobbies, interests, learning – in short, anything that brings you joy and takes you out of yourself. And the fifth is Values – what’s most important to you in the way you want to live your life; what do you stand for; what are the principles that most define you. Believe me there is nothing to deplete your personal resource faster than living a life in direct contradiction to your own personal values.
Personally, I have 8 KSIs. They sit within eye-line in what my kids affectionately call “Dad’s War Room” while I do my work. They range from “Do Something that Scares You” to “Keep on with the Guitar” to “Be Present with the Kids” to “Stay Connected to my Personal Board”. The range is like a graphic equaliser, always dynamic and rarely equal. But all items are always visible and I know that if they are getting the right attention at least my personal river, and ability to cope will be high.