Combining the Power of Self-Care and Leadership

February is heart month. You might be wondering what that has to do with leadership. Lots more than you might think: if we fail to take care of ourselves, there’s no leading or serving others.

Many of us spend lots of time on work and too little on ourselves, thinking self-care is something for self-indulgent sissies. That’s a thought to let go of.

Years ago, when I mapped out what I wanted from life, being a statistic for heart disease wasn’t on the list. Had I been as diligent in learning about self-care as I was about leadership, I could have avoided becoming a heart statistic.

Thankfully, my loving husband ignored my “I’m fine” remarks and got me medical help. Because of him and an amazing cardiologist, I dodged the silent killer and have gotten to celebrate three more birthdays.

The privilege of surviving, I’ve learned, comes with opportunities and obligations. Opportunities to live a life of purpose and an obligation (albeit a welcome one) to share, educate, and inspire.

Self-care belongs on the to-do list of everyone who wants to call themselves a leader.

To make that happen, the first thing we have to do is concede there’s more to life than work and then give ourselves permission to be unselfishly selfish and perfectly imperfect.

To be unselfishly selfish, we take or make the time to do things that make us better. To be perfectly imperfect, we accept our limitations and embrace the quirks that set us apart. We:

  • Block off hours in our calendar in which we turn off the computer and put away the cell phone. We use these chunks of “me-time” to think, dream, read, meet with a friend, write, stare out the window, or go for a walk. We see the productiveness of this time and note it’s in a form that’s different from our work-focused “go-go-go” activities. We renew.
  • Opt more often for the roasted veggies and grilled meat and less often for the double cheeseburger. Good fuel in, good health out. However, we still enjoy a cheeseburger occasionally and do so without guilt. Small pleasures are enough.
  • Stay on top of our personal “metrics”—blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, and the like—just as we do our work-related ones. If we run a company or a department, we know our KPIs. We look at the numbers to know what’s going right and what needs attention. We need to be able to rattle off our personal health numbers just as easily as we do the business ones.
  • Quit being the stoic who denies not feeling well. We no longer stay quiet because we don’t want to make a fuss, come across like a hypochondriac, or have to acknowledge the scary possibility that something serious might truly be wrong with us. (If you’re a woman and have used any of these reasons, you have lots of female company. Women are far more likely than men to delay seeking medical treatment for heart conditions, which is why heart disease kills more women than breast cancer each year.)
  • Happily acknowledge being the most unbendy person in the yoga class or being the one who walks, not runs, around the track. The important thing is that we’re there and doing something physical.
  • Know that heart attack symptoms differ between men and women. Men’s symptoms—chest and arm pain—are widely recognized; women are not so much. Women’s symptoms can include being extra tired for no apparent reason, experiencing unusual shortness of breath, feeling light-headed, or having pain in your neck, jaw or back. I dismissed my episodes of dizziness and shortness of breath as signs of overwork and lack of exercise. That was almost a deadly mistake.
  • Accept the vulnerability that comes with sharing our self-care stories because story-telling touches hearts and minds—the same things that all good leaders do. Sharing is important because it keeps us honest—I’ll always remember the look on my husband’s face when he told me he never again wanted to follow an ambulance knowing that his wife was in it.

And lastly, we hold each other accountable for self-care and tell ourselves and others—every day—that self-care isn’t selfish; it’s smart. Loving life and leading others start with loving and taking care of ourselves. As a gift to ourselves, our loved ones, and those whom we lead, we just do it.

Life, love, and leadership—with all their delightful and dizzying ups and downs—is why.