Self-Care as a Leadership Skill

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Executive burnout has a way of trickling down. The smart leader knows when a break is necessary—and plans ahead for it.

Leaders often like to talk about the “tone from the top”—that the business priorities an executive expresses ultimately become what the rest of the organization prioritizes too.

But “tone from the top” needn’t be reserved for business priorities. It includes ethics, attitude, and, I’ve come to think, wellness. The CEO who looks after him or herself is in a better position to get the job done, and to encourage everybody on the org chart to feel the same way.

“A stressed-out CEO is not going to be an effective CEO.”

I wasn’t entirely sold on that notion before I began reporting my story in the new Associations Now about executive self-care. But the leaders I spoke with all made a strong case for the connection between taking care of one’s physical and mental health and the success of the staffs at the associations where they work.

Some of this is just a practical matter: An exhausted CEO is in no position to be an effective leader. “A stressed-out CEO is not going to be an effective CEO,” as Nabil El-Ghoroury, CAE, executive director of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, puts it. But paying attention to one’s own wellness is a good prompt to pay closer attention to the benefits and breaks that everybody gets, as the leaders in the story explain.

An irony of executive de-stressing, though, is that it’s one more thing to put on the to-do list. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a regular routine—a monthly spa day or day dedicated to catching up on reading. More ambitious breaks, though, require more advanced planning.

For instance, when C. David Gammel, CAE, executive director of the Entomological Society of America, knew that the association was getting involved in the “heavy lift” of a merging its meeting with another large event a few years ago, he wanted to pursue a sabbatical after it was done—two continuous months off. “I pitched the idea at that time that there would be a natural kind of break point for me to take a little bit of time off, and come back to the job refreshed after having achieved that major milestone of that meeting,” he says. “The board at that time was open to it.”

Gammel pitched the idea three years in advance, which he says helped; so did working with a board of academics who were familiar with sabbaticals. The opportunity to “let my brain spin down a little bit,” he says, allowed him to come back to the office with a fresh perspective on leading ESA. But even if you have a board resistant to a lengthy sabbatical, Gammel notes that even the few weeks of vacation time that an executive typically receives can do the trick. “It doesn’t have to be a big two-month thing,” he says. “A short amount of time that’s longer than a typical vacation but not a full-blown sabbatical can still be beneficial.”

Employees may not have the same flexibility with vacation time, but CEOs can still do their part to make those breaks meaningful. Tracy Petrillo, CAE, CEO at the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine, makes a point to allow vacationing staff members to be fully off-duty, guilt-free. “I’ve said, ‘Do not e-mail each other when you’re off,’” she says. “You have permission to not reply to e-mail and not reply to member phone calls if they call your cell phone.” Deborah Callahan, CEO at the National Fenestration Rating Council, has emphasized wellness efforts at her organization, and says she’s seen fewer sick days among employees, which she credits at least in part to those efforts.

It may take time to get wellness on your agenda as a leader, and for that to trickle down to the rest of the staff. That’s all the more reason not to delay it. “You don’t have to let yourself get to a crisis point,” Gammel says. “I think it can be kind of a maintenance thing, where you take some time off and it allows you to process it, reorder, reenergize, and then come back at it. And I don’t think you should wait for a personal crisis to occur before you do that.”

What self-care routines do you practice as a leader, and how do you communicate the value of wellness to your employees?

From Associations Now, a publication of the American Society of Association Executives.

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