The Leadership Imperative of Self-Care

The Leadership Imperative of Self-Care

Nancy Kymn Harvin Rutigliano (State University of New York Empire State College, USA) and Amy Frost (Getting Back to Work, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 13
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1049-9.ch045
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Leaders, in and at the helm of enterprises and organizations, are unacknowledged members of the helping professions. While the need for self-care is generally acknowledged for those in the traditional helping professions of medicine and teaching, self-care is equally essential for leaders in other professions. How leaders care for themselves impacts their ability to lead others effectively, make sound decisions, and bring out the best in others. Yet little attention has been paid to this subject and to the impact of not practicing self-care, which we define as “prioritizing time and taking measures to ensure that you are maintaining physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health for optimum performance at work.” We make the case that self-care is essential for effective leadership, offer guidance for dealing with the myths and barriers to self-care, and provide a framework for creating self-care plans for ourselves and those we work with.
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It is said that wars are won in the general’s tent. Sharpening the saw in the first three dimensions – the physical, the spiritual, and the mental – is a practice I call the “Daily Private Victory.” And I commend to you the simple practice of spending one hour a day every day doing it [self-care]—one hour for the rest of your life. There’s no other way you could spend an hour that would begin to compare in terms of value and results. It will affect every decision, every relationship. It will greatly improve the quality, the effectiveness, of every other hour of the day, including the depth and restfulness of your sleep. It will build the long-term physical, spiritual, and mental strength to enable you to handle difficult challenges in life. (Covey, 1989, p. 296)

Leaders are givers. By our very nature, our attention is on others—those we lead, those we serve, those we rely on, and those who rely on us. There is no leadership without giving.

Ordinarily we think of those in the “helping professions” as the givers: doctors and nurses, teachers and aides, those whose care others rely on. Business leaders are in the “helping professions” also, though possibly seldom viewed that way. And just as it is vital for those in the traditional “giving” fields of medicine and teaching to practice self-care—caring for themselves so they can continue to care for others—leaders in and at the helm of organizations of all kinds need self-care as well.

Self-care, as we are defining it for the purposes of this paper, is “prioritizing time and taking measures to ensure that you are maintaining physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health for optimum performance at work.” This definition builds on Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), specifically “Habit #7—Sharpening the Saw: Principles of Balanced Self-Renewal.”

The high degree of stress that comes with leadership demands a high level of self-care. Why?

Research on leadership, stress, cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence and decision making over the past 30 years indicates that when a leader’s stress level is sufficiently elevated—whether on the front line of a manufacturing process, in the emergency room, in the boardroom, or on the battlefield—his or her ability to fully and effectively use the right blend of cognitive intelligence and emotional intelligence to make timely and effective decisions may be significantly impaired, sometimes leading to poor decisions: the bolt is affixed too tightly, the incorrect medicine is given, the merger is killed, the wrong order is given. (Thompson, 2010, p. 7)

The evidence is in the results. Over time, the lack of self-care impacts the bottom line, fuels conflict, destroys teamwork and partnerships, reduces morale, and can create roadblocks to raises, promotions, and opportunities for future growth. In addition to these traditional performance metrics, a lack of self-care also reduces job satisfaction, creativity and innovation, and a willingness to take risks (Thompson, 2010). Business as usual continues with a survival mode instead of fueling an entrepreneurial spirit. A lack of self-care promotes a lack of heart and spirit at work, essential to long-term success in the marketplace, with stakeholders, and for ourselves.

In our demanding professions, we as leaders devote so much dedication, commitment, energy, and concern to what we do every day that we run the risk of achieving burnout or becoming numb from the stress of continual emotional demands. We can get over-focused on competing priorities and doing for others that we do not give ourselves the time and energy we require to be whole and healthy.

In his book The Stress Effect, Henry Thompson (2010) makes the case that “good decision making under extreme stress” is a quality essential to effective leadership, especially with mounting global marketplace pressures, technological advances, security breaches, and human capital demands. “We are virtually guaranteeing an epidemic of leaders making unsound decisions and resulting organizational failures if we overlook the relationship between stress and decision making, and if we don’t take that relationship into account when we ourselves lead or choose others to do so” (p. 6).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Stress Management: Activities, mindsets, behaviors and attitudes designed to reduce the negative impact of stress.

Stress: Factors that impact performance and well-being.

Self-Care: Prioritizing time and taking measures to ensure that you are maintaining physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health for optimum performance at work.

Daily Private Victory: Time (preferably an hour) every day for reflecting, regrouping, and readying yourself for your workday.

Recognition Deprivation: When workers put forth tremendous efforts and are consistently not recognized for these efforts, leaving them starved for recognition and appreciation.

Checkpoints: Standard practices within a company or organization that can be evaluated to determine whether improvements can be made to reduce stress and promote favorable working conditions as well as a culture of self-care.

GRACCE: A systematic approach to create your self-care performance plan, focusing on Goals, Resources, Action, Control, Change, and Evaluation.

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