Photo: Adeolu Eletu

Successful entrepreneurs and business owners know the value of health and well-being. They either developed a healthy foundation early on, or they learned the hard way – after experiencing a well-being problem that led to loss in productivity or profit – that health equals wealth. Are you one of those leaders, or are you among the vast majority who know, conceptually, the importance of wellbeing, but struggle to level up self-care to match the demand of success as it grows and expands? 

Plenty of leaders show up to our coaching calls excited about their work but overwhelmed (and secretly thriving on that overwhelm because we tend to wear overwork as a badge of honor). Some leaders seem to have boundless drive and stamina, but underneath that high performance is a decades-old fear of being left behind or never measuring up. The payoff is high enough to keep going – until it costs them valuable employees, intimate relationships, or their own health. Executive burnout is a very real, very costly issue, and one of many reasons that self-care forms the foundation of my work. 

This foundational conversation is especially important right now, during uncertain times fueled by global fear and well-being issues over which many of us have no control. Never has wellness been more critical to success than in the current pandemic. 

Self-Care Means Business. 

You can’t lead others if you can’t take care of yourself. Your business can’t thrive if your workforce or customer base isn’t thriving. Energetic Intelligence reminds us that our energy impacts the energy of those around us; therefore, if you’re willing to accept radical responsibility as a leader, your self-care is also the self-care of everyone around you. Your self-care means business – for you and for everyone you serve.

What “self-care” entails in a leader’s life is going to evolve and grow as they do. Once you distinguish what it actually means for you, it becomes part of your business plan. Putting it into practice is just as critical for your business as other nuts and bolts like marketing, bookkeeping, and sales. As you continue reading, I suggest starting a self-care checklist/plan. You might start by writing down:

1. What you currently practice that truly serves you and your business, 

2. What you use as a stand-in for self-care that doesn’t actually serve you, 

3. What you avoid in terms of self-care, and 

4. What you’re committed to taking on, based on what you distinguish from reading this article. 

What does Self-Care actually mean for you as a leader?

Self-care, wellness, well-being – whatever the trending hashtag is today – is often “all polish, no nail”. Looks good in photos, sounds good in writing, but there’s no substance or growth happening underneath. Honestly, as I searched for a stock photo to headline this article, I could not find a “self-care” image that didn’t involve pastels, bathtubs, or tea cups. The surface-level concept of self-care that shows up as lavender-scented bubble baths, weekly mani-pedis, or a weekend round of golf might be enough to replenish you after a week of average stress. Is it really, though? For decades, women were sold on outer self-care (hair, nails, pilates – the idea being that whatever keeps us looking good should keep us feeling good), while men were taught that tough guys and big shots need nothing but a good shave and another round of golf. Leaders, especially emerging leaders, have learned to practice inner self-care, as well: meditation, vision boarding for their career goals, in-house life coaches at their start-ups, daily ping-pong breaks in their open-concept office – the list goes on and on. All of these can be wonderful practices and structures, but they still aren’t adequate. Why not? For one thing, all of them feel good. 

Being Good to Yourself Doesn’t Always Feel Good

Under normal circumstances, entrepreneurs and business owners can get away with the surface-level, very marketable concept of self-care referenced above. Add a personal, professional, or global crisis into the mix, though, and it quickly becomes apparent that surface-level is no longer adequate for the challenges that lie ahead. 

Perhaps you’re of the mindset that “Powerful leaders just power through!”. Some certainly do. I’ve been guilty of it myself, and I’ve watched plenty of clients power their way through some hard times, muscling their way right into burnout, exhaustion, stress, overwhelm – sometimes even divorce or mental breakdowns. 

We’ve all heard the stories and read the advice about slowing down, taking breaks, getting support. Why, then, would a powerful leader still think it’s in their best interest to neglect their well-being instead of doubling down on it? Because it feels good for the ego! Powerful people got into their powerful positions by trusting their power. Again, we’ve been trained that it’s powerful to push ourselves to the breaking point, to work ourselves to exhaustion, embrace the DIY, even if it kills us. It’s not always easy to choose actual self-care over what the ego says will get you what you want.

We often find in the coaching process that a major breakthrough is available only by trusting something that the ego says is weak or unsafe. That “something” is different for each unique person, and it’s usually in their blindspot. Distinguishing, trusting, and embodying that “something” creates a paradigm shift that eventually is even more effective than what used to be the go-to power tool. In terms of self-care, this means that whatever you’re resisting is likely what would do you the most good. 

The Self-Care Struggle: Short-Term Avoidance or Long-Term Abundance

Short-term satisfaction wants comfort and rewards immediately. Actual self-care requires long-term thinking; it asks what is nourishing, not just comforting. Short-term brain always needs to feel good. Long-term vision asks what does the most good. 

We’re bombarded with marketing that trains us to believe that self-care is both: it feels good now, and it’ll make you happier in the long run. It can be both, but often, actual self-care doesn’t feel good in the moment. Self-soothing feels good in the moment and can also be self-care; there’s nothing wrong with self-soothing or short-term satisfaction, but as we move from the immediate impact of crisis into the reinvention and rebuilding phase, it will serve us well to distinguish what we’re really up to when we make choices in the name of “self-care”. The ability to distinguish what truly is caring will prevent the term self-care from becoming a concept that you hide in or hide from as a leader. 

The choice point requires the awareness of your personal “Avoidance vs. Abundance Game”, as I like to call it. It requires that you bear the pain of discomfort in service of your longterm goals and gains. The push and pull of “knowing it vs. choosing it” when it comes to impeccable self-care (and remember, self-care equals business care) can be challenging even under normal circumstances. 

It’s delightful when what’s good for you also feels good, but some of the most effective self-care practices feel absolutely loathsome, embarrassing, or just downright boring. Going to the gym is an obvious example for many people: it’s one of the top New Year’s Resolutions, which makes it one of the most broken agreements that people make with themselves. Annual physical check-ups are another very basic self-care practice that I hear powerful people neglect regularly. One of my favorite examples of a loathsome, embarrassing foundational self-care issue was a client who, after months of being cranky and unpredictable, finally admitted that she was suffering from such intense hemorrhoid pain that she couldn’t sit still or focus in meetings, but she was too embarrassed to see a doctor! She put off physically feeling good because of the anticipated emotional pain of seeking help. I’ve seen plenty of leaders pull similar shenanigans with finding a new therapist, booking regular coaching calls in between their busy meeting schedules, hiring a nutritionist or personal trainer, or scheduling an audit with their accountant. 

What about self-care practices like taking a vacation day (or five) in the middle of your company’s busiest season, apologizing for something crummy you did even if you got away with it, leaving work early to go to your kid’s piano recital, hiring support you think you can’t afford but know will level up your life? “That’s irresponsible!” I can practically hear some of you yelling at me already. Consider that it’s even more irresponsible to perpetuate a model of leadership that neglects your health, heart, or soul in the name of “should”, “not enough”, scarcity, or comparison. I trust you to discern which choices are truly in service of self-care, and which ones are self-preservation. Long story short, “feelings” are not always the best indicator. 

Your commitment to who you want to be as a leader is what really matters when creating a self-care plan. Some of you are quite literally nailing it when it comes to the feel good part. Maybe you want to be a leader who always has beautifully manicured nails, and the spa time feels amazing. That’s fantastic! What else will you add to that routine to level up your experience of rejuvenation, stamina, pleasure, and power? What’s out of your self-care comfort zone? You might notice that once a self-care practice becomes routine, it’s no longer self-care; it’s a hiding place. I had a client for whom it was initially a breakthrough to take time off if she had a migraine. Months later, though, I noticed she was using migraines as a reason to miss meetings that were especially challenging or confronting… The true self-care for her at that point was to get support for what was triggering her defenses about that meeting.

Some of you are resisting self-care, often in the name of power. You’ve got some tough choices to make, and I hear you – it’s not possible to be in two place at once, and sometimes, the most self-caring decision might hurt someone you love. Do you have to be the guy who never sees his kid play piano but always pays for the lessons? Maybe so – but unless you want to also be paying for that kid’s therapy about it later, you might want to have an honest, compassionate conversation about why you won’t be in the audience. What’s going to allow you to have that compassionate, responsible conversation? Self-care. You want to be the first female CFO at your company, and you want to meet a spouse and have a baby within the next year? Totally doable, and it’s going to require a very new conversation about how self-care fits into those 14 hour days you’re working right now. You might still work long hours, and the boundaries you’ll need to empower to stay in good mental health at work are going to serve you well in establishing a healthy romantic relationship, too. I’m sure you can guess what’s going to help you determine those healthy boundaries. Say it with me: self-care. 

Proper Care and Feeding of a Leader

 Self-care means nourishing, feeding, and tending to your goals and your greatness. “Your greatness” – that’s such a coachy thing to say, right? It’s what you’ll access more of when you truly tap into self-care, though. It’s your highest, best self – not just the insatiable, comparison monster that your ego can become when you get confronted or depleted. 

One measure of impeccable self-care is that you have few to zero days of feeling depleted or triggered. You are so on top of your game that you’re capable of running your business with an open, authentic heart. You have a clear mission and action plan, and you are consistently fueling yourself in a way that has you show up with authenticity and integrity. 

Here are some simple, real examples of self-care that I’ve seen make a difference in my clients’ lives:

  • Weekly Money Meetings with their spouse – full transparency required
  • Leaving work early to attend their child’s piano recital (“Boring… and I could get fired!”. Spoiler: they were beaming with pride afterward, and they got a raise a month later because they modeled work-life balance)
  • Taking a vacation during the company’s busiest season. Pause to move forward!
  • Waking up an hour early to make breakfast for the family
  • Hiring a housekeeper to make breakfast for the family
  • Scheduling sex three times per week 
  • Asking for a promotion instead of waiting to be noticed
  • Apologizing for a comment that had negative consequences 
  • Balancing their personal budget every single day
  • Acknowledging their employees – genuinely and publicly 
  • Asking for acknowledgement themselves – and actually accepting it
  • Morning journaling – every morning, before anything else
  • 30 Days of Yoga (which became four years and counting)
  • Taking a vacation every quarter (this was from a man who had not taken one in years, and it absolutely upped his game at work!)
  • Going to the gym
  • Integrity as Self-Care: Thoughts, words, and actions all aligned.
  • A “Listen up!” Practice: speaking her mind and sharing brilliant insights, at the risk of being “wrong” or shamed. 
  • Contingency Plan in place. Do you have an emergency fund? Disability insurance? Support system to help you emotionally through tough times? A place to recharge? 
  • Connecting without Complaining. If you tend to bond with people via shared complaints, explore the power of bonding through shared wins instead.

Here are some examples of what might pass as self-care but is likely avoidance when we take an honest look:

  • Nightly glass of wine that often turned into half or whole bottle
  • Choosing naps over gym time more often than not
  • Saying yes to social engagements 3-5 nights per week
  • Breaking the budget for brunch – every single weekend
  • Saying yes to family time from obligation instead of connection
  • Sex as a way to escape loneliness (Spoiler alert: not a longterm fix)
  • Sex as a way to feel powerful (Again, not a longterm solution…)
  • Avoiding sex with spouse on a regular basis, and refusing to seek therapy
  • Refusing to ask for what they really desire or need (Expecting others to read your mind is not self-care!)
  • Overeating, binge drinking, drug use, mindless consumption of anything (including television, news, and even exercise, in some cases)
  • Assuming you know what’s so with your dough, versus actually crunching numbers on a consistent basis
  • Staying in pj’s all day – every day. For months. (Looking at you, Quarantine Queens… I love you, and I promise you will get a boost from getting fully dressed at least once this week.)
  • Never letting your colleagues see you without a full suit, tie, and “business demeanor”. (Letting yourself be human is also a valuable self-care practice, and I promise they will still respect you even if they know you’re human. They might even respect you more…)

Your Business Plan From Here

You likely see some gaps and practice areas to create for yourself from here. Rarely do I meet a leader whose self-care is 100% handled, 100% of the time. More often, I meet leaders who say it is but haven’t actually taken a look at what that means in a very long time. 

Make two lists for yourself: an Integrity Reality Check and a Self-Care Calendar. Reality check: What’s out of whack in your life or business? Write it down – anything from unpaid bills to sales goal gaps to not taking regular time off. Self-Care: what do you honestly need on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis to be properly nourished and fueled as the leader you want to be?

Put these lists somewhere you’ll be faced with them daily – on the fridge, taped to your computer, on your kid’s forehead – whatever. Share them with someone you trust to hold you accountable from both love and austerity. Whittle that Integrity List down to the point that you are running a tight ship, no leaks. Empower that Self-Care schedule like your leadership depends on it – because it actually does. 

It won’t always feel good. Sometimes, it’s going to feel boring or even threatening to your status or other commitments. I challenge you to put self-care first for at least a month and let me know what you discover. Now, go take care of yourselves and each other.