culture of compassion, Leadership, Resilience, self-care, wellbeing

Self care – the first lesson of being a good leader?

In January 2018, I took a decision that I needed to pay better attention to my health and well-being.  I was working long hours, not making enough time for exercise by continually missing my ‘planned’ gym sessions, not eating as well as could do and not seeing as much of my friends and family as I would like.  All of which was leading to weight gain, irritability, restless sleep and general feeling of heaviness.

I decided I needed to make a change.

I took a decision to focus on eating well, increasing my level of exercise and trying to get into a better sleep routine.  I needed a bit of help and encouragement so opted for an on-line programme that was based around 20 minutes of HIIT sessions rather than gym workouts or long runs as I was short on time and needed a realistic approach.

Being a night owl and self proclaimed ‘not a morning person’, setting my alarm for 30 mins earlier and dragging myself out of bed to do exercise was quite difficult at first but it was so enjoyable that I found myself getting into a routine of the 5 times a week really quickly.  An added motivation was the results were visible within the first couple of weeks.  I had expected to lose weight and get fitter but what I hadn’t expected was all of the other benefits.

After a couple of months I found that I was much more able to take stress at work in my stride.  I was sleeping better and felt much more calm, rational and in control.  My mood was more consistent and I felt happier.  Six months in, I was really starting to notice that I was much more productive at work and at home.  I was managing to fit more into my daily life and feeling better for it.

My team started to notice that I was less chaotic and calmer and I felt  I was able to devote more time to listening to the team and supporting them, which in turn made me feel like I was being a much better leader.

In my organisation, one of the key pillars of our leadership competencies is compassion.  My experience this year has taught me that that is important not just to have compassion for others but crucially, to have compassion for ourselves.  It may feel self-indulgent at first, but taking that essential personal downtime allows us to free up our minds and open our hearts to other possibilities.  This is a crucial tool in a leaders toolkit.  In fact, whilst researching the evidence behind my own experience I came across a wealth of evidence and articles, one of which was in Success magazine earlier this year and explains why self-care is a crucial part of being a good leader.  Concluding, “A leader who prioritizes downtime, relaxation and self-care discovers an increase in overall well-being and in multiple dimensions of performance”.  This is the holy grail for all leaders, so why do so many of us de-prioritise ourselves and end up burning out?

I’ve spent the last 20 years always striving.  A recent reflection I had was the last time I worked a job that was 9 to 5pm was when I was 15 years old and a waitress.  Every part time job I had after that I put in the extra mile and that has continued throughout my career.  This self-care experience has had a profound effect on how I view what is important.   I’m now finding myself making much more time to be with my friends and family; taking more exercise in the great outdoors and sticking to a tip from the Danish way of Hygge by working with a scented candle burning in order to nurture my soul and help me think.

It seems to be working.  I’m now 9 months into this new way of being and I like this new me!  This work/life blend has developed into a new habit for me and one that I intend to keep going with. The world is constantly ‘on’ and that means increasingly we are expected to be always ‘on’, responsive and doing, rather than being.  This is unsustainable and leads to less productive working, high stress and potentially burnout.  All of which is counter-productive.

After nearly 20 years in a leadership role I thought I knew what it meant to be a good leader, however this experience has opened my eyes and taught me that in reality, good leadership starts with self-care.


About the author

Sarah Morgan is the Director of Organisational Development for Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS FT

She has a passion for supporting visionary and strategic solutions for the health and care sector.  With nearly 20 years experience in healthcare spanning operational management, consultancy, policy making, organisational development and applied research.