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All coaching assignments over the last 22 years start in the same place: by exploring how the leader’s looking to develop themselves.

They’ll often describe how they want to have a greater sense of how they can lead even more effectively, ‘manage up’ with more impact or, perhaps, raise their profile within the organisation as they keep being overlooked for promotion, despite glorious reviews. It’s often at the very end of the conversation that leaders will divulge that they’re also exhausted, stressed and lost. Sometimes they’re tearful (men and women, just to be clear!): they’ve forgotten why they came into this role and have lost their sense of purpose and meaning. They’re seriously questioning if they wish to continue. They’re definitely not prioritising their own self-care and self-development, in fact they see it as their role to look after everyone else before looking after themselves. Some take enormous pride in not prioritising themselves. As a result, they’re so busy in their roles, they rarely – if ever – make the time to look after themselves. I asked one client this question:

‘Who or what comes lower on your priorities than yourself?’. After an extremely long silence he answered, ‘nobody. And nothing’.

How does that sound to you?

Maybe it sounds like a selfless leader who should be admired and promoted? I would certainly advocate the idea that the best leaders have a mindset that’s about enabling and caring for others. On that we’d agree. However, I’d also argue that leaders who put themselves at the bottom of their priorities will eventually burn-out. And whilst they’re on the road to burn out their team will experience sub-optimal leadership because the leader will be exhausted, prone to reacting (instead of responding) and torn in a million directions trying to keep everyone ‘happy’. Everyone except themselves, that is.

As one (exceptionally capable) Head described how she was working so hard to develop everyone, tears rolled down her face. ‘Don’t take any notice of my tears’, she said, ‘they don’t mean anything’.

It’s possible that she really believed that, but I certainly didn’t. I’m delighted to report that yesterday her tears were of joy, as she became executive Head of three schools…and expressed her excitement at how her senior team had ‘stepped up’ and how she now invested her evenings into her love of dress-making. She’s leading very effectively whilst prioritising her self-care.

So, how do leaders prioritise themselves, alongside their colleagues?

1. They make a conscious choice to do so. Sometimes it’s easy because they recognise that the consequences are already untenable. Other times it’s a challenge as they have embedded in their minds the notion that leadership is about meeting others’ needs and not their own. It’s only when clients recognise the importance of prioritising themselves too that we can make real progress. Until then it’s largely noise…

2. They see the benefits for everyone (not just themselves). A leader who prioritises themselves as well as their colleagues, has a greater chance of being the leader that s/he has the capability and desire to be. A healthy, balanced lifestyle enables leaders to thrive and concentrate on what they’re really there for: enabling themselves and others to be the best they can be. Every day.

3. They have a vision of what ‘prioritising themselves’ could be like. Human beings copy the behaviour of others and make those behaviours normal. So, if you’ve grown up with parents who work hard, then it’s likely that you’ll have that imprinted on you too. Other people have experienced leaders who prioritise themselves at the expense of their staff and make a deliberate decision to ‘not be like that!’…and go too far. I can empathise. My old MD used to ‘visit the bank’ every lunchtime. Sadly, this was simply his euphemism for drinking several spirits and then returning to work. Everyone knew that – if you wanted to get a reasonable conversation from him – have a meeting in the morning! Few people have experience of leaders who prioritise themselves in a healthy manner, so it can be difficult to envisage what that looks and feels like. But all clients, with support, do it. In their own way and in their own timescale. It isn’t about being selfish, it’s about getting yourself into the best possible place mentally and physically so that you bring the best of yourselves to others (colleagues and family).

4. They make a plan to experiment and they experiment. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. For me, as an ex-training manager, it’s what makes leadership coaching work when training alone (sorry) rarely does. Coaching is about getting underneath exactly what’s going on for you and precisely what you really want. Some people prioritise exercising, others prioritise playing their neglected cello, others still prefer returning to their long-forgotten habit of mindfulness. It’s about exploring, experimenting and making it happen.

5. They don’t rely on willpower, they make it easier for themselves. Neuro-science has demonstrated how important it is for us to not to reply on willpower but instead make it easier for us to do it…. than not do it. For example, if I leave my headphones on the arm of the sofa then I’m much more likely to do my 20 minutes of mindfulness than if I have to search for my headphones first. Similarly, if I lay my gym clothes out by my bed so they’re the first thing I see in the morning, I’m significantly more likely to go for that run than if I had to hunt for them first. We always suspected this to be true, but neuroscience has proven it to be the case.

6. They find a way of explaining to themselves and others a rationale for prioritising themselves. Clients will offer many (reasonable sounding) objections to the idea: ‘Won’t people think I’m being selfish?’, ‘But how can I leave to go for a walk when they’re so busy?’ or (most popular of all) ‘How will I get everything done then?’. It’s an important part of our work together that the leader takes time out (usually in our coaching session) to explore how they’re going to justify it to themselves. Because once we can justify it to ourselves, we have a script for justifying it to others (albeit mostly they don’t need to hear your justification!).

7. They recognise that they’re role models for others to also prioritise themselves. If staff think they can’t leave until the leaders leave, then everyone will leave later and later. It’s up to the leader to role-model, ‘I’m going to the gym at 5.30 every evening’ or ‘I’m going for a walk at lunchtime’ and ‘I matter too’, encouraging others to follow your lead. But leadership isn’t only about leading your direct reports, it’s also about influencing your bosses and peers too. A healthy leadership team with a great mindset can enable a whole organisation to do the same.

Leaders who prioritise themselves as well as their colleagues are the leaders who thrive in their roles and relationships. Their healthy attitude of ‘I matter too’ enables both them and their colleagues to thrive and to focus on their real jobs and avoid becoming caught up in politics, competitions (‘I work longer hours than you’) and burn-out. You matter, your well-being matters. You can’t manage time but you can manage your priorities. After all, as I said on the panel, ‘If you don’t prioritise looking after yourself, who will?’.