Resting in a hammock in the trees

I am dedicated to creating workplaces where all people thrive. And most certainly, there are things that a leader can do to enable this — engage strong communication, encourage belonging, be skilled when navigating conflict, develop the ability to build and maintain a cohesive team, demonstrate true caring about people and their lives. These are the things that can be learned.

Then there is a deeper dimension of leadership to consider: nurturing your own soul. Bringing heart and meaning into your work. What I call the sacred.

Without this, you may end up feeling dried up, brittle and exhausted. To know that your work and effort makes a difference, you need to slip back into the soothing waters of meaning and contribution.

One of my favorite mythical stories is called “Sealskin, Soulskin,” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It is about a seal-woman who slips out of her pelt to dance in the moonlight with her sisters during the full moon. One night, her pelt is stolen by a lonely fisherman who begs her to stay with him for seven seasons, outside of her natural element and skin. She agrees (haven’t we all agreed to something that isn’t entirely good for us?) and stays for seven seasons, even as she is drying out, cracking, bleeding for the need to return to her watery home in the sea. When she decides to leave, the fisherman is outraged and calls her selfish. But she isn’t deterred. She knows what she must do.

I am thinking now of the ways we can be lured out of our most natural “home” by our work. I did this when I agreed to take on the building out of an internal university for a national healthcare company. At the beginning, it seemed like a very good use of me. But it involved week after week of travel away from my children and family. The long days were leaving me so exhausted that I found myself teary on the flight home one Friday evening. I felt dried out, used up, over-used.

I needed to take the time to refill, refuel my heart, body and soul. But the schedule wouldn’t let up. I was packing for another trip within days. I stayed with that work beyond seven seasons before finally leaving it. I had to return to more simple rhythms and time with my children.

You may be experiencing deep fatigue, exhaustion, a loss of connection with meaning and soul. You may have agreed to slip out of your sealskin for “seven seasons” but now are questioning the bargain you struck. What’s needed is a return to what nourishes you, to what feeds you and fills you. A retreat.

The Power of Rest and Retreat

The hubbub of the world is incessant. It demands that you pay attention so you don’t get caught off guard and uniformed. Social media grabs your mindshare and locks you in a headlock for hours on end. Your children need you, always, whether they are small or grown. Your family needs you. Your work is never done. A never-ending to-do list fills every empty moment. You know the drill all too well.

This happens to me, too. Fortunately, I can drum up the good sense to go on retreat. I escape the madness for a few blessed days, tucking into a cabin in the woods or on the island. Here, I move in simple rhythms, caring only for myself. I eat simple meals. I read. I rest. I write. I walk outside into the pine-scented air. I leave social media — all media — behind. I bring books and journals that invite me to settle in and really open to the words on the page.

And I listen for the voice of my soul to speak. To direct me to pay attention to what has heart and meaning. To sort this from that.

If we trust the people on our team, then we have to be aware of their wellbeing, too, and notice the signs of stress and over-work. Good people aren’t being dramatic if the experience is months and months and even years of feeling like the workload is too much to bear. You must be willing to intervene. To listen. To find ways to get your people some rest, rejuvenation and respite. You may send them on a sabbatical or a retreat.

On our team, during the early months of the global pandemic, we knew one of our most capable employees was suffering. She has two school-aged kids and was suddenly plunged into being a home-school teacher, classroom playmate and full-time cook for her family. Working full time was too much. How did we know? She showed up for our Zoom calls in tears, exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed. We needed to do more than just listen. We needed to take action. Together, we designed a six-week, paid leave of absence. No work, just restoration. We promised to have a conversation at the end of it and to see what was needed then.

As it turned out, going part-time until her kids went back to school was the best and right thing to do. For now.

Guess what? She is still doing a great job at her job. In fact, she’s even more focused, since we have delegated out some of the things she probably should never have been doing in the first place.

Your challenge is to listen to yourself and to your people and then discern the right action. The soulful, caring right action. Will you?


  • Dede Henley


    Henley Leadership Group

    I have been in the field of leadership development since 1982. I founded Henley Leadership Group 20 years ago to help leaders and organizations create more equitable and productive workplaces and ignite the nascent leadership potential of employees at all levels. Through individual coaching and programs designed to generate positive business results, Henley Leadership Group has served thousands of corporate leaders in a variety of industries, including healthcare, technology, energy and finance. Away from work, I live with my husband, and try not to meddle too much in the lives of my half-dozen kids.