Being a leader can be exciting, rewarding, tough and challenging all in one day (or even one hour!). Naturally, leadership comes with a high level of responsibility; to make the right decisions for the direction of the organisation, to look after teams, to do the right thing by clients and stakeholders. But whilst this sense of responsibility should be taken seriously, it can escalate into feelings of perpetual pressure. If left unchecked, this can lead to overwhelming levels of stress and anxiety.

In order to lead effectively and stay on top form, organisations, teams and stakeholders need leaders to consider and care for their own well being, and acknowledge that there are times when they need to put themselves before others.

Putting Yourself First

Imagine you're on a plane and are listening to the safety briefing from the flight attendant; parents and carers are informed that in case of an emergency the oxygen masks will appear, and you'll hear something like:

"If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.”

The stark reality is that as a leader, putting everyone else first all of the time just isn't feasible. There will be times when you need to put yourself first, to consider your own needs before others' needs. This isn't a selfish act, it's about making sure you have the resources, energy and ability you need to continue the important job of leading, helping and serving others, so you can do your job properly and empower them do theirs.

"You cannot serve from an empty vessel."

Eleanor Brownn

How resilient are you?

So how do you know what your own levels of resilience are? You can start by assessing how you currently deal with pressured or challenging situations at work. Are you someone who is happy to let your frustration show, who will shout, get angry, blame others when things go wrong and don't care who hears? If that's you, have a think about whether that means you're having the best impact on those around you - is your behaviour motivating for others; are you setting the best example, and how does that leave you feeling at the end of a long day at work?

Or are you like a swan, where outwardly you seem calm and composed, but actually you're paddling furiously internally 'under the surface' to keep things going? How does that feel by the end of the day?

These might seem like extremes of behaviour, but it's often difficult to know how our outward behaviour comes across to others because we can only view ourselves subjectively through our own eyes.

What might someone else be seeing?

A good way of finding out is to remember a specific time when you felt very pressured at work - take some time to ask yourself "what might others around me have seen, heard and even felt about me?"  Write down the answers . Then imagine you were a fly on the wall, what would you have seen and heard from that angle? Again, write it down so that you can really assess what other people might have seen that you may have missed.

Being aware of your outward behaviours and the impact you have on others during times of pressure is a good starting point for understanding your own levels of resilience. Then you can add in how you feel about pressured situations at work, whether on reflection sometimes it feels like it's all too much. It's an entirely normal situation in today's challenging workplaces, but it's one you can start to do something about straight away.

Building your resilience

Building resilience is about having energy reserves for you to call on when times get tough, and not letting yourself get to the stage where you're running on empty.

You've recognised there are times when you will need to put yourself first, so what does that mean in reality? Ideally, it would be planning ahead some actions or activities that keep you in a positive frame of mind and allow you time to focus on your own needs and wellbeing.

It could be a whole variety or combination of activities - here are just some ideas from real leaders in hectic roles who, despite being very busy, managed to do something differently:

  • putting an hour of protected "you" time aside in your diary every day
  • scheduling coffee with a trusted colleague or mentor every month
  • getting creative - spend 30 minutes brainstorming a whole load of potential solutions to issues you're facing and see what comes up
  • committing to get to bed early one night a week
  • do something you feel nourished by, from having a haircut to reading a great book, to running, cooking, to having afternoon tea!
  • booking ahead time off for holidays to look forward to
  • leaving work on time at least once every week to spend more time at home
  • work on your mindset - notice any negative thought patterns you might have and challenge yourself to look at things differently. Most setbacks are temporary and failure can often turn out to be a great learning opportunity. What would your best friend say about this situation?
  • adopting a mindfulness approach when you allow things to simply 'be' as they are without trying to change them
  • work with a qualified coach to help you step back from the situation, see things objectively and learn how you can deal with pressure in a different way

Whatever your answer is, commit to it: if you've chosen to protect some time for you in your busy calendar, then be ruthless in putting that time aside,making sure you're located somewhere you can think and focus, and where you won't be disturbed. Allow yourself to do whatever you want or feel the need to do, whether it's simply sitting and reflecting, planning ahead, or finishing that overdue report.

Notice what helps you to feel better, what strengthens you and keeps you going when you put yourself first. Take some time to remember the skills, strengths and abilities that got you to the role you're in, the people that believed in you along the way and the amazing things you've already achieved.

"No matter what kind of challenges or difficulties or painful situations you go through in your life, we all have something deep within us that we can reach down and find the inner strength to get through them."

Alana Stewart

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