Leaders, take care of yourselves

Leadership can be tough. Whether you are the principal engineer on a piece of work, leading a development team, taking responsibility for a functional area or heading-up an organisation, you are more often than not going to find yourself in challenging circumstances. The good news is that you have the attitude and innate capabilities to deal with those challenges. The bad news is that you may well lose sight of that given all the stuff that is going on with you.

Leadership roles often come with diverse pressures and a variety of responsibilities. For instance, the Technical Lead role we have in our development teams at Redgate includes team leadership, technical expertise, people management, and even customer advocacy responsibilities. It’s a lot. And that’s even before we talk about day-to-day obligations or stuff going on outside of work. And the Tech Lead role is not unique in this regard; my role as Head of Product Delivery includes responsibility for product strategy delivery, people management, operational duties and organisational leadership.

A challenging situation can occur in any one of these multiple strands of responsibility at any time. We can probably cope with that, even if the scale of the challenge is large. The danger is when a challenging situation occurs in more than one strand at the same time. When this happens, we begin to feel overstretched and that we can’t dedicate the time each challenge really needs. We begin to feel like we haven’t got our responsibilities in hand. A perfect storm could be brewing…

Leaders are courageous, and have in many cases literally asked for more responsibility. This means we often shoulder the burden of our roles stoically and silently. “That’s the job”, we’ll say. Much of the time we are resilient, and can cope with both the pressure of responsibility and the cognitive load required for these many streams. Except when we can’t. When that becomes too much we reach cognitive overload, which can spiral into dis-stress. Leadership roles can be isolated and lonely. Stoicism can veer into martyrdom. Dis-stress undiagnosed and unresolved can snowball. And when you are caught in an avalanche of stress, no rational thinking or innate leadership capability is going to dig you out. You need help from the outside.

A notion I hold dear is that it is your duty as a leader to take care of yourself. Your duty. Firstly, you are just as worthy of being treated with empathy and kindness as the people you treat well. If you don’t believe that, do me a favour; go and ask your peers, family and friends, just to check. I think you’ll find they think you deserve kindness too.

Secondly, by visibly treating yourself kindly (“I’m sorry, I’m not really able to take in what you are saying in because I’m feeling anxious about something and I can’t concentrate. I’m going to head home for a break. Can we catch-up tomorrow?”), you will encourage others to treat themselves well too. Which is a good thing.

Thirdly, and as a leader-y type this is maybe more likely to influence you, if you’re not well and not thinking clearly then your struggles are being amplified by everyone who is guided and influenced by you. Each interaction you have, every decision you take and each bit of guidance you impart is distorted to some degree when you’re in dis-stress. This final point is not designed to freak you out and pile on more snow – it’s to encourage you to better prepare for the storm.

Waiting until the avalanche hits you isn’t a good strategy. Instead, you need to be prepared and to assess where the likely risk is. While the weather is relatively fair, step back to look at your role from a wider perspective and identify where problems could arise. Leaders often need help in carrying their burden. Work out where that help is most needed, and put the time into developing those support systems. Build some slack into the daily pressure or cognitive load that is placed upon you, so that you can be resilient when a challenge occurs. This is likely to look like delegation, and personal development for other people working around you. It’s almost certainly going to involve being open and vulnerable. And it’s definitely going to pay you back in the future.

Taps post-it

I find it almost impossible to objectively self-assess or self-coach when looking at my own role. So I’d recommend talking this subject through with a coach or trusted peer to explore where the load may become too great in the context of your role. To help with these conversations I’ve come up with a coaching tool that my team and I have used to explore the pressure on some of our team leaders, and I’ve shared that here.

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