Leadership and self-care: how can I lead by example?

By Claudine Thornhill,
updated on Dec 28, 2022

Leadership and self-care: how can I lead by example?

In this expert column, we’re exploring self-care in leadership – AKA, how to take care of yourself when you’re used to putting everyone and everything else first

Look at some of the top leadership traits and you’ll see an impressive list of qualities; dependable, decisive, innovative, risk-taking, solutions-focused, confident, and empathetic, to name a few. Leaders are the people we depend on in both our professional and personal lives, and it’s due to these qualities that many of us look to leaders for a sense of security, direction, and stability.

Some of the most revered leaders have a sense of duty, often to the point of selflessness – think Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. These great leaders may be exceptional examples, but I’m sure we can think of people in our day-to-day lives who exude such admirable qualities as well. However, what happens on the other side of that coin, when empathy, a sense of duty, and responsibility for others’ welfare comes at the expense of a leader’s own wellbeing?

Many of the people I work with, as a nutritional therapist and wellness coach, are leaders in their careers, and leaders in their businesses. Irrespective of the initial health issue that needs attention, a common area that comes up in the course of our working together, in addition to nutrition, is self-care, stress management, and sleep.

According to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a record 12.6% of UK adults were in the first three months of running a business or were already running a new business in 2021 – the highest figure since the study was first conducted in 1999. With the rise of the side hustle, and the number of people starting businesses at an unprecedented high, it naturally follows that stress and fatigue may feature, and that self-care falls to the back of the to-do list. Look online and you’ll see content on both productivity and toxic productivity, but less on self-care as a leader. Whatever side of the fence you sit on, it’s true to say that being a leader at work, or the leader of a new business, comes with putting other things before yourself, often to the detriment of long-term health and wellbeing.

So how can leaders, particularly those with a side hustle or new business, support their health and wellbeing?

Plan to eat well

When the days are long and the calendar is longer, it’s unlikely that cooking up a nutritious meal is at the top of your priority list at the end of a busy day. Temptation and availability make it easy to grab and go, or to order in, while some people may skip meals altogether. Being tired, and hungry in addition, means that we’re less likely to make the best choices. Save yourself the brain power and plan what you’ll eat in advance. I advise my clients to take a realistic look at their diaries. If it’s showing a distinct lack of time for cooking, it may be worth meal planning in advance, including deciding what you’ll eat, where you’ll get your dish from, and being confident that it’ll provide a balanced meal option. This might mean meal prepping ahead of time, using a meal delivery service, or having a go-to list of restaurants that you can rely on to provide balanced meals when you’re in a rut.

Sleep well

Both my clients and I swear by sleep masks, sleep sounds, and bedtime stories to get a good night’s sleep, particularly if it’s been a long day and you have an early start. If you wake up feeling groggy, it’s likely that something in your evening routine may need adjusting. It may be avoiding caffeine after 4pm, meals within two hours of bedtime, or creating more of a sanctuary in your bedroom.

Make time for you

Starting the day doing something solely for yourself can provide the grounding and nurturing that can help you withstand the challenges of leadership. Most of us accept that physical activity is a great mood booster and energiser, that deep breathing helps calm the mind and body, and improves focus, and that Epsom salt baths support relaxation (if you don’t have a bath a foot soak will do). How about taking three deep breaths the next time a web page is taking time to load, listening to piano music while getting dressed in the morning, or replacing checking emails on the commute with creating a gratitude list, or – my personal favourite – a ‘proud of myself’ list? These mini-retreats can happen at any moment, it’s all about seeing the opportunity.

If you would like to find out more about nutrition, visit the Nutritionist Resource or speak to a qualified nutritionist.

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