Lifehacks - The secret of sustainable leadership
Written by Rachel Mortimer
Rachel Mortimer, Leadership and Development Coach and Windsor Leadership Alumna and Facilitator
Ah the old life hack teaser, it always gets me. You know those lengthy videos that dangle “weird” or “crazy” “secrets” to draw you in. They give you the irresistible feeling that you are about to discover a shiny new thing to improve your life.
The day I discovered that there is a little arrow on the side of the petrol gauge which tells you which side your tank is on? Well, that WAS life changing. But mainly they are underwhelming gimmicks, about peeling an onion or using a loo-roll holder to organise your cables, which either doesn’t work or doesn’t make enough difference to bother with. Usually because it’s so obvious that you’ve already worked out the best approach, or you know what is needed, but it isn’t worth the effort to make the required change.
Spoiler alert. The same goes for how you lead. Nobody except you can unlock the secret of sustainable leadership. There is plenty of well-researched advice that tells you, generically, how to look after yourself as a leader. But somehow many of us are still on the brink, never quite allowing ourselves whatever it is that we know we need to thrive. And that’s what I really want to explore.
Why is it that we so readily sacrifice our own wellbeing in favour of almost everything and everyone else, and what can we do about that?
What makes leaders neglect themselves?
There are all sorts of reasons why we de-prioritise ourselves at work, but there are two particular factors which can set us on a path to chronic self-neglect.
The first of these is that people are notoriously bad at projecting themselves into the future, so it is hard to see the long-term downsides to working unsustainably.
There is a clear basis in neuroscience for this. The brain is better at processing information that is concrete and immediate (generally, what is happening now, or what has already happened). This is because we have evolved to prioritise information which is most likely to help us to survive. To think about our future self, the brain needs to use abstract information and create predictions - influenced by our experiences, biases and emotional responses. This also takes more cognitive effort, which is the last thing you need when you’re already shattered.
We also tend to prioritise short term reward over long term gain. ‘Temporal discounting’ is the idea that the value of an object does not remain constant over time. So why would we go to the effort of thinking about the damage we may be doing to our future self, when it is far less work to maintain what we are already doing?
The second factor which causes chronic self-neglect is that when you are already in a state of stress, it can often be difficult to recognise it and gain the perspective needed to break the cycle. So we just plough on until we tip over.
I know these factors make it sound like there is no chance of creating a sustainable leadership model. It’s as if the very circumstances in which leaders operate are designed to make us neglect ourselves. But if you bring about the right circumstances, you can break both cycles. I’ve written about the first here, so the rest of this article will focus on the second.
How can we persuade our current self to take action to help our future self?
Knowing that there is no great hack, and our human make-up means it will not happen naturally, we need to set up the right conditions to force our brains to do the work needed. And we need to do this at a time when we are most likely to succeed.
There is no point in doing this if you don’t feel ready and properly resourced. Find a moment instead when your resilience is high, and you are feeling courageous. You could block some extra time out after doing something you know will inspire you – getting out in nature, or spending time with friends who energise you. For me it would be a combination of the two.
Friends, mountains, nature, photo – Rachel Mortimer
Then ask yourself what it is that is making you deprioritise yourself. To use author Kim Scott’s terminology, use radical candour. You owe it to yourself to be honest here, but you can also be kind with it. You could use the following questions to structure your thinking.
- What am I trying to achieve with my current behaviour?
- Is my current behaviour helping me to achieve what I want and is it sustainable?
- If either answer to question two is no, or I don’t know, ask yourself what will you feel, think, look like if you are doing the same things three years from now.
- Is there a different way to behave that is better for me and could achieve the same outcome?
- What one thing will I start doing to help me to achieve a sustainable approach?
Even as you have been reading this, the answer may have come to you. It may just be that you have yet to make a change, because at our busiest times it usually feels easier, quicker and safer to keep the status quo. If that’s the case, armed with the knowledge that the odds are stacked against you for this sort of change to happen naturally, can you take one small step and have a go? If you are prepared to put in the work you may find what turns out to be a life-changing hack after all.
And if it’s just not the right time for you now, I will leave you with the words of eighties philosopher and all-round legend, Doc Brown, for some inspiration:
Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.
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