Stress & Avoiding Burnout, Well-being

Sustaining Leadership: Practices that Strengthen and Sustain Leaders for the Long Haul

In an age of instant news and accessible social media our society is becoming increasingly aware of the mistakes, moral failures and loss of integrity of so many of our political, religious, community and business leaders. As a result there’s a rising tide of lack of trust and cynicism towards institutions and their leaders across the board. At the same time too many of our leaders are experiencing undue stress, burnout and depression. What then are the practices, disciplines and systems that can sustain and support leaders to retain their integrity and remain emotionally strong for the long haul despite the challenges and pressures along the way? What can keep you as a leader soaring and provide ‘the wind beneath your wings’?

In this article I’ll briefly describe the 8 essential practices that, as an experienced leadership coach, I have found help leaders to remain strong, focused and resilient for the long term.

1) Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is being able to recognise your own emotions, how they impact others and use your instincts to guide decision-making. It’s also having a good sense of confidence and self-worth with a realistic assessment of your strengths and limitations. It’s the foundational skill in Emotional Intelligence (EQ) which has been defined as, “your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behaviour and relationships” (Travis Bradberry & Jean Greaves, Emotional Intelligence 2.0). Bradberry’s research found that EQ ability underscores many skills (including time management, decision-making and communication), accounts for 58% of successful performance in all kinds of jobs, is the single biggest predictor of workplace performance and the strongest driver of leadership success. In fact Bradberry found that 90% of all highly effective leaders were strong in EQ.

2) Personal Mission Statement
Successful, resilient leaders invariably are passionate about a mental picture they hold of their long term preferred future. This picture emerges from a weaving together of 4 dynamic elements that constitutes their missional DNA:

  • Foundational Mission – Based on a period of significant reflection these leaders have a firm, balanced sense of purpose that undergirds their personal and professional lives;
  • Basic Beliefs – Consistent with their mission, they have identified 6-8 basic philosophical, spiritual and cultural beliefs that engage with and reinforce that sense of purpose;
  • Core Values – Arising from their basic beliefs, they have identified a total of 6-8 core values; essential motivational principles that drive forward their purpose. These values cover both ‘being’ and ‘doing’; they are the ‘what matters most’ for how they live and work;
  • Motivational Vision – Woven together, like the threads in a tapestry, the above 3 elements help create a vital image of a preferred future. They create an inspirational sense of direction of where the leader wants to be in 5-10 years’ time.

3) Healthy Family/Home Life
Leaders who remain creative and committed for the long haul take quality time to invest in their core relationships – their life partner, children and other loved ones. They know that their key legacy will be their loving input into the lives of those especially close to them. At the same time they recognise that this investment of love, empathy and energy not only strengthens the emotional and spiritual health of their families but their own personal growth and sense of well-being also.

4) Self-Care
When raising a family and supporting your spouse while handling effectively the challenges that face all leaders, it’s tempting to neglect caring for yourself. That’s why I encourage my clients to address not only work and life balance but self-balance as well. For our own mental health we need to make time in our daily schedules, even if it’s only for 30 minutes for those activities we find life-giving – eg. reading, listening to music, hobbies. In addition it’s important to look after our own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Eating well, getting enough sleep, physical exercise, prayer, meditation and reading spiritual resources, acts of service and kindness are examples of the kinds of practices that build depth, quality and well-being into a person’s life.

5) Leadership Coach
Virtually every elite sportsperson has their own specialist coach. Why not every leader? Leaders who thrive through the long haul invariably will tell you about the difference a coach has made to their lives, both personally and professionally. A coach is someone who helps people move from where they are to where they want to go. Coaches help coachees develop the skills and strategies to get there.

Coaching is based on a collaborative, client-centred relationship between client (i.e. coachee) and coach that is driven by the client’s goals and concerns. The coach brings to the relationship the strengths of depth listening, asking empowering questions to help the coachee tap into his/her own ideas and resources, together with a genuine concern for the coachee as a whole person. Effective coaching doesn’t depend primarily on the coach’s knowledge but on the coachee’s ownership and accountability to follow through on the action steps they’ve identified to achieve their goals.

6) Peer Support Group
In addition to having my own leadership coach I have found the value of being part of a small group of 5 trusted friends who meet together regularly to share life, explore issues and challenges and lovingly support one another. The group I belong to has been meeting together for over 20 years. Such a group provides a relational environment where leaders in the same sector or industry can discuss in safety those issues and difficulties they find challenging. Naturally, the effectiveness of this type of group significantly depends on developing a covenant together that, among other things, includes confidentiality.

7) Financial Well-being
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, gave this advice to his leaders and other followers: “Make as much as you can, save as much as you can and give as much as you can!” Sound financial planning and disciplined investment frees leaders from many of the money worries that occur in times of rising cost of living and escalating inflation that can tempt them to pursue profit rather than purpose. It also enables them to be generous in supporting others who are in need.

8) Personal Spirituality
Secular author Yishuang Meng writes,“The essential elements of spirituality include: i) Transcendence of self which usually manifest in a sense of calling or destiny, and ii) belief that one’s activities have meaning and value beyond economic benefits or self-gratification.” Spirituality then is not the same as religion. Essentially spirituality embraces an inner relationship with the transcendent; the reality we know as ‘God’. It addresses three core questions:

(i) Whose Am I? – The search for connectedness and communion. How can I connect to the transcendent that provides the ‘ground of my being’? (Paul Tillich) Traditionally, for societies in the Western and Arab worlds the answer has been sought through the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Asia, via such Eastern religions and philosophies as Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

(ii) Who Am I? – The search for identity and integrity. What are the beliefs and values that shape how I want to live? And from where can I find the power to live them out with integrity and grace?

(iii) Why Am I? – The search for meaning and fulfilment. How can I frame (i) and (ii) into a personal lifestyle and occupation that makes a positive contribution to my own life, my loved ones and the world around me?

For me, as a follower of Jesus Christ, my spirituality is sourced in a trust relationship with God as revealed by Jesus.

As Dr Kirstin Ferguson states in her recent book, Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership, “Our world today needs leaders who understand they are continually learning and reshaping the best way they can lead in any given moment. Our world needs leaders who are eager to understand how they can have a positive impact on those around them.”

While all 8 practices make their own important contribution to a leader’s long term resilience and well-being, it is the leader’s personal spirituality that becomes the inner, vital centre generating peace, meaning, significance and direction for their life. As such it is the critical element in their resilience, sustainability and capacity to influence positively others for the long haul.

Graham Beattie

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