I’m a huge believer that external facets of leadership health are largely a reflection of our internal health.
In short, if you want to lead in a healthy way, you yourself must first be healthy.
The next two parts of this series will focus on those external dynamics of healthy leadership: relationships and finances. These external (tangible) results of leadership can only be accomplished if we’ve first dealt with the internal dynamics of sustainable leadership.
This conversation is needed now more than ever. As we head toward summer, we’re all feeling the compounding stress from a year of COVID, political turmoil, economic uncertainty, and a variety of other factors.
Before we transition to the external facets of leadership health (and given the startling rise of burnout during 2020), I want to offer signs and symptoms of burnout. If you or someone you know is experiencing the following, please seek professional help. You may contact me here for coaching or reach out to a licensed therapist in your area.
Feelings of apathy about work
Questions around meaning and purpose
Using food, alcohol, or drugs to self-medicate feelings
Lack of satisfaction about work accomplished
A lack of energy
Little desire to be productive or passionate in work
Physical ailments like prolonged upset stomach, heartburn, and/or headaches.
Holistic leadership health includes physical health. Your body was made to move. It not only provides physical benefit but mental and emotional health as well.
Your Body Was Made To move
During my master’s program, I was extraordinarily unhealthy. I honestly stopped stepping on the scale after it read 250, but if I had to guess I got much closer to 260 or 270. I was overweight, had issues sleeping, bought the biggest pants I’d ever owned, and masked my feelings through food.
Shortly after graduation, my family moved from California to Denver and Elise became pregnant with our second child. My sleeping had gotten worse and I literally could not make it through a single day without taking a nap. My weight ballooned closer to 280.
Finally, I had enough. I bought a membership to the local community rec center and hit the weights. I was weak and I was tired, but I was determined.
Soon, after that, I began to clean up my eating.
Along came babies three and four, and new responsibilities at work. The pressure was mounting.
This time, however, I exercised the stress away, rather than attempting to eat my feelings away.
By the time we left Denver to move back to California, I was down over 40 pounds. While 240 was still much too heavy for me, I was on the right path.
Three years later, I’m now a trim 215 and in the best shape of my life. I now find it more of a struggle to not work out than to go hit the weights. My morning routine includes 30-40 minutes of weight training in the morning and a 10-20 minute walk in the evening.
Lead Through Physical Health
Healthy leaders who care about avoiding burnout take their own physical health seriously.
I know this because I suffered from burnout while being extremely physically unhealthy.
I also know this because I’ve worked with dozens of leaders over the years and have seen it play out time and time again.
If your work schedule consists of more fast food than fitness, you’re in for a world of pain.
Healthy leaders know to move their bodies and stay in great shape. Physical shape and your ability to control yourself around food often say as much about your emotional and mental health as anything else. I’ve seen it enough, it’s almost a guarantee: if you are unfit physically, you’re also likely unfit emotionally and mentally.
Benefits of Exercise
There are numerous benefits to exercise. Exercise has been shown to:
Release the brain’s happy chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.
Improve your mood.
Increase sex drive
Promote better sleep
Fight off infection
and Balance hormones
Made To Move
Our bodies were made to move. It’s why I added a personal training certification to my coaching packages years ago and constantly work with my clients to achieve optimal health. Our bodies, when not in motion, experience degradation.
Sitting, quite literally, kills you.
Whether it’s taking frequent walks around your office, your block, or your neighborhood, your body is made to move.
If you’re struggling, start small. At my heaviest, I had no grand illusions. I never wanted to “run a marathon” (still don’t!) but I did want to make it to the gym three times in the first week. Next, I tried hard to go three days without dessert. Then, I challenged myself to sleep through the night. I replaced an overabundance of coffee with more water.
Make a small but significant step today to seize control of your health. Call a friend and go for a walk. Eat an apple instead of a donut. Head to bed on time instead of binging your favorite television show.
Each time you intentionally make a stand for your own health, your leadership capabilities improve. More than that, you care for those around you.
People are counting on you to show up, perform at a high level, and influence those around you.
When it doubt, move your body. Your body was made to move!
The mental health of a leader encompasses everything they do to stay at peak performance and elite levels of people development. Leadership mental health is the foundation to sustainable excellence.
Beginning in Coaching
I fell in love with coaching because it gave me something tangible to work towards. Fresh out of my master’s program and stepping into a new workplace, it was actually required that I have a coach for the first year of employment. They paid for it, I benefited from it.
Little did I know that at 24, it would be a life-changing experience.
My first coach, Jeff, helped me see the bigger side of life and leadership. Leaders struggle and leaders fall. Because of this, leaders can’t bear the weight of responsibility themselves.
Good leaders surround themselves with others. Those that will both listen and challenge. Strong leaders embrace the chance to be pushed and to be bettered.
Most of all, leaders take their own growth seriously.
The Faces of Mental Health
Mental health, like a diamond, has many faces to it. Here are several of the types of mental health I talk about with my clients:
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it does provide us with healthy ways to get started – or continue – our journey of holistic leadership health.
One of the most frequent questions I get is, “What’s the difference between counseling and coaching?” Both are in the ‘helping professions’ and both have their place. I’ve experienced both. I’ve benefitted from both over the years. I need both in my life to help me be at my best. So here, in brief, are the differences.
Counseling – The benefit of counseling is that it looks backward in the leader’s journey. Addressing pain points, unresolved issues, family dynamics, trauma, and emotional scars (among other things) counseling provides a safe place for leaders to stop, pause, and reflect on where their life has come from.
Coaching – Coaching is predominately future-focused. Instead of needing details when clients give me their history, they give me the “5-minute version.” I need to know enough to ask good questions, not about where they’ve been, but about where they want to go. Coaching helps individuals get from point A to point F quicker, easier, and more proactively.
Other Investments In Mental Health
Leaders are readers. If you’re not reading, you will never reach your full potential. I regularly send out my current reading lists and those I see on other websites. I challenged myself as much as possible through a wide variety of genres. Thoughtful leaders engage in history, economics, biographies, fiction, and a wide variety of personal development books.
Seminars and Conferences
Learning from others is a great way to get a quick return on your investment. Find a local or national tradeshow, expo, or conference related to your line of work. Attend regularly, take notes, and write key takeaways from your learning. Years ago, I made it a practice to take the conference notes I took and create a three-step action plan after each one. The amount of new information can be overwhelming and this helped simplify it for me and gave me quick wins when I returned to my normal daily routine.
There are two major time wasters in our daily living: our exercise habits and our commute times. I’ve given up music 95% of the time in favor of podcasts. Exercise six days a week gives me ample time to squeeze in an extra book or podcast. Additionally, I spend an average of 10-15 hours driving every week. I can get in an extra book a month on average just by listening to books and podcasts in the car.
Our leadership journeys are often moving at a frenetic pace. Meetings, sales, marketing, investing in others, family time, it can all feel overwhelming. One of the greatest assets you can give yourself is the ability to stop. Breath. Contemplate. Refresh. Retreats are a way to intentionally withdraw from the day-to-day grind and gain some long-term perspective.
This is so important we’re going to dedicate another post to it, but the benefits of exercise extend far beyond physical health. Exercise releases chemicals in our brain that make us happier, gives us an energy boost, reframes our perspective, provides inspiration, increases productivity, and stimulates growth.
Growing leaders must be all in on their own health, as this series has shown. Mental health is a critical component of that. This includes both traditional approaches to mental health, as well as positive habits that increase our brain capacity and stimulate our own growth. Leadership mental health is a commitment to yourself and to others to continually execute improvement.
The next step in the journey towards sustainable leadership is emotional health.
Now, I’m no piano player, but I’ve painstakingly taught myself chopsticks and Joy To The World over the course of about twenty years.
I don’t have a very good range on the piano.
I possess, at best, a very limited repertoire and skillset. If you were to give the best piano in the world, on the best stage in the world, in front of the most attentive audience in the world … I’d still be an embarrassment to most of the people who know me.
My limited piano playing ability is one thing, for the leader in business, a limited range is quite another.
What’s Your Range?
Someone with limited emotional intelligence, a limited range on the piano as the analogy goes, only knows a few emotions. I’m sure you’ve all met someone (or have been that someone) that is happy, angry, sad … and that’s about it.
Increasing our emotional intelligence gives us a wider playing range on the piano.
I once worked with a guy who played his angry key. That was it. He was either stoic, fairly passive, and laid back, or angry. I don’t mean, “Wow, he’s upset.” I mean, “I think he might hurt someone” levels of angry. He always talked about wanting to be a leader, but his ability to play only one note of his emotions left him a hard individual to trust.
Mastering the Basics
There are six basic emotions:
Everything else we experience is a shade or expression from these basic emotional reactions.
But, think of the emotional range of being mad.
Here are other notes in the piano range of mad:
Each of these, depending on the context, brings another element of healthy expression to a relationship. Was my coworker really angry? Or was he jealous? Frustrated? Irritated? Skeptical?
He may have always expressed anger, and for those of us witness to it, it was troubling, but what was behind it? His inability to distinguish between anger and frustration left him limited in future potential.
The emotional range of happiness includes emotional expressions like:
Those with greater emotional intelligence can display a greater range of emotions.
Emotional Intelligence gives us better control and a deeper range. That’s the first benefit of coaching.
The need for healthy emotional expression is vital to fruitful and productive leadership. It is also essential to avoid burnout. Adequately expressing and processing emotions gives the leader tools to work through difficult experiences and situations.
The emotional health of a person sits in the unique field of being almost completely internal in nature through past experiences, while also being almost completely externally visible through actions, perceptions, and relationships.
Peter Scazzeo notes the concerns of emotional health:
Emotional health is concerned with such things as: naming, recognizing, and managing our own feelings identifying and having active compassion for others initiating and maintaining close and meaningful relationships breaking free from self-destructive patterns being aware of how our past impacts our present developing the capacity to clearly express our thoughts and feelings respecting and loving others without having to change them clearly, directly, and respectfully asking for what we need, want, or prefer accurately assessing our own strengths, limits, and weaknesses, and freely sharing them with others developing the capacity to maturely resolve. (1)
For the emotionally healthy person, effective leadership requires a previous recognition and engagement with emotional traps, snares, and shortcomings at earlier stages of life. Family dynamics, addiction triggers, and shortcomings all need to be worked through and reflected on.
I spent several years in therapy working through many of these issues. It was ingrained in me from a young age that I should work hard and achieve success. By itself, this is not a problem. My issue arose when I began to tie my identity in my ability to work hard. I was only worth what I could produce.
That became a dangerous trap. When I sense I wasn’t producing enough, I sensed I wasn’t good enough. I had to learn these triggers, work through them, and express my feelings in healthier ways.
This work is required for all healthy and sustainable leadership. Work on increasing your emotional range and adding notes to your repertoire. Those around you will appreciate the more beautiful ‘music’ you create and it will enhance your quality of life.
Spiritually healthy leadership grounds high-achievers by connecting them with their purpose as they seek to influence the world. In this installment of our “Healthy Leader” series, we examine this idea of spiritually healthy leadership.
Spiritual Health: Connecting With The Divine
I spent nearly a decade in pastoral ministry before fully embracing my call as a coach. Each position led me a step closer in the process, but there was always a sense of, “this is not quite it…” when it came to feeling fulfilled.
Over the course of that decade, I learned a lot about myself, belonging in a community, healthy boundaries, interpersonal relationships, and effective communication. I spent time at every level of leadership.
At every point along the way, and with every “promotion” that was gifted to me (we can talk later about why I hate that term when applied to the church…) I found that I had fewer and fewer people to talk to. My friend list grew smaller, my mentors became fewer, and the circle of close confidants decreased.
When I started working with executives, I found the same was true with them. The higher they were on the ladder, the fewer people they had to talk to. That was, at least in part, their need for a coach. They looked around and realized they had no one to talk to.
Most of the time, I was (or at least felt) alone. The executives I worked with echoed that pain. Maybe you too can relate.
When I wasn’t alone, and people were genuinely trying to support me, we talked about a wide range of topics.
How much work I was doing
The quality of my preaching
Never once, not once in ten years, did someone ever ask: how are you at connecting with God? Is your spiritual life healthy?
A New Direction
That was part of my journey into both my doctoral school program and hiring my own coach. I needed that accountability. Studies, like one conducted by the Percept Group, seem to echo this, with nearly one-third of Los Gatos residents polled identifying “dealing with stress” as their chief spiritual concern. (1)
This in part explains the rise of contemplative prayer and mediation among leaders. There is a recognition that part of the human condition is wired to connect with something beyond ourselves.
I teach an eastern philosophy class. In it, we examine Steve Jobs’ affection for Buddhism and how other great leaders are implementing some of these teachings. These leaders are yearning for something outside of the physical and temporal to belong to.
In general then, here are some practices and guidelines to help you grow and cultivate a healthy spiritual side of leadership.
Cultivating Spiritual Health
Spiritual disciplines offer a historically rooted approach to healthy leadership. Disciplines have always been an important component for people of faith. Through self-sacrifice, we discover deeper meaning, significance, and a sense of calling.
In his seminal work on the spiritual disciplines, Richard Foster notes their importance when he says,
“The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond the surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm. They urge us to be the answer to a hollow world.” (2)
There are many forms of spiritual disciplines like fasting, prayer, mediation, holy pilgrimages, silence, forgiveness, solitude, and tithing.
The point in each of these is the same: denying some aspect of yourself or your personal will to spend time listening and connecting with God and his guiding power.
“Few things will keep us on course in the exercise of our leadership and facilitate the care of our soul as much as a meaningful prayer when engaged in consistently.” (3)
Many leaders find it hard to take regular time off. The demands of their job, the joy of feeling needed, and the unexpected crises or tendencies of workaholism can make it hard to pull away from the demands of work.
To combat this, the ancient Jewish people instituted a practice called sabbath. More than a day off, the sabbath is a specific and intentional time to rejuvenate and recharge emotionally and spiritually.
This rest includes the need for extended vacation days as well. Workers operating under increasingly stressful conditions are taking what seems to be a smart approach by working more to meet demand. The problem is that the increased workload does not equal increased productivity. In the law of diminishing return, and most studies show this, maximum productivity happens somewhere around 30-35 hours.
Operating in a job of high demand and need it’s easy to feel needed and guilty for taking time off. But a refusal to take time off can exacerbate the problem of burnout. In addition to regular Sabbath rest, leaders must use their full allotment of vacation time. This is not happening, as a 2019 study found. (4)
Staying Spiritually Fit
Spirituality can be a tough subject to talk about. The common American mantra to not talk about politics and religion has hurt our public decorum. Smart employers, and high-capacity leaders, remain vigilant in their quest for staying healthy in all areas of life.
This includes spiritual health, however, the leader defines that.
In future posts, we’ll continue to intertwine areas of health and explore how creative outputs like hobbies contribute to a well-rounded leader.
(1). Source: Ferguson, Jane K., Eleanor W. Willemsen, and MayLynn V. Castañeto. 2010. Centering prayer as a healing response to everyday stress: A psychological and spiritual process. Pastoral Psychology 59 (3) (06): 305-29.
Original Study: Percept Group. (2004). Ministry Area Profile 2004 Compass Report for Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception, 219 Bean Avenue, Los Gatos, CA 95030, Study Area Definition: Custom Polygon 1990–2004. Rancho Santa Margarita, CA: Percept Group.
(2). Source: Foster, Richard J. “The Spiritual Disciplines: Door to Liberation.” Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 1. Rev. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.
(3). Source: Rima, Samuel D. “Spiritual Self Leadership.” Leading from the Inside Out: The Art of Self-leadership, 138. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000.