As part of a five-year project, I recently did an internet search to find out what the world believes are the key roles and responsibilities of a business leader. The results featured opinions from academic research, professional consultancies, and various thought leadership from industry. In summary and according to these various organisations, the focus of great leadership includes:

  • Vision and Purpose 
  • Motivation and Inspiration 
  • People Development and Culture
  • Communication
  • Strategic and Critical Thinking 
  • Creativity and Innovation 
  • Responsibility and Dependability
  • Performance Growth and Development

I’m sure in general terms, most of us can agree with the themes on this list. However, there is a stark omission that is without any question the most vital component of any form of leadership. It is the thing that will determine the sustainable success of all other responsibilities listed above; the ability to have self-kindness. 

What is ‘self-kindness’ and why is it so critical to leadership and organisations?

Over the past 18 months, our research – which included assessments taken by 1,000 people – involved asking individuals about their work and home lives and their general sense of satisfaction with these. Work was found to be one of the highest areas of worry for people (25%), with family and relationships (25%) also a common area of concern, with issues around self-identity another (29%). When asked about the future, 28% of people felt stuck, 26% felt doubtful and 18% were worried about lack of purpose. Added to this, we decided to focus on those in positions of responsibility with our research uncovering that those in positions of leadership, and the people we look to for reassurance and consistency in difficult times, were struggling the most. 97% said they needed more balance in their lives, 79% feared not being good enough, 49% were struggling with self-doubt and 47% felt stuck in their lives

To cope with this, 62% of leaders and those in positions of responsibility said they are indulging in excessive behaviours – such as over drinking, eating, mobile devices and working – and if they do think about their own needs and looking after themselves properly, they feel guilty (42%). One in seven went on to say they have serious concerns for their health. Despite these worrying statistics, 32% recognise they need to simplify their lives and 24% are actively seeking more stability. 

Armed with these insights, we began to look more specifically at how leaders see, feel and act towards themselves by focusing on the issue of ‘self-kindness’. We interviewed over 200 people (60% being male) to understand what they were doing – or not doing – about these statistics. As part of our GLAS Method, we look at self-kindness as being about ‘balance’ – as explained in the illustration below. If you aren’t looking after yourself and being kind to you, the scale tips to the left and you’re being too self-judgemental and letting negative feelings dominate. If you’re tipping the scale too far to the right and giving all of yourself to others, your ability to look after yourself is completely depleted and stress and exhaustion kicks in. Of course, it’s a sliding scale and we move up and down depending on what’s happening in our lives and at work. However, the more we try and look after ourselves the better we feel and behave, which of course has a knock-on effect to others around us in the workplace and the happiness and productivity of everyone in the business.

A picture containing diagram

Description automatically generated

The first issue we discovered was that leaders feel that their job and highest priority is to look after everyone in their charge and that ‘self-kindness’ is a fluffy thing that doesn’t apply to them. When questioned further, we found evidence that the people in positions of responsibility are exhausted and on the verge of burnout. When we then asked about how effective they felt in their roles given this state, approximately 70% admitted to feeling immense pressure and not able to respond to this as they’d like.

Self-kindness can easily be confused with ‘doing nice things for yourself’ such as a soak in the bath. What we mean by self-kindness is the ability to value yourself, remove excuses, take self-responsibility to be deliberate in your choices and decisions and work at being at your very best. This requires us to treat ourself as well as we do others – especially those we love and care for. 

When any of us are exhausted and in a state of depletion, it isn’t just our own health – physical and mind – that suffers, it is the well-being of those around us that can be adversely impacted. As a leader, fatigue can result in a lack of alertness, slower reactions to cues or situations, and affect the ability to make good decisions. All of which are vital to a good leader.

If we return to the example list of leadership responsibilities, when a leader is ‘off form’, the ability to hold the business vision and purpose can be lost to ‘quick fix’ and survival-based approaches. The last thing on someone’s mind will be motivation and inspiration when they are lacking self-confidence and the necessary energy to lift those around them. The way in which humans relate to others is very much rooted in their own sense of balance and so someone feeling out of sorts will create a potential tension for those around them. When we are not at our best, communication will always suffer and rather than providing healthy progressive communication, it is replaced with transactional exchanges of information. We can lose the ability to fully listen – being defensive and missing the benefit of openness and questioning. Strategic and critical thinking requires a fully engaged mind with clear focus. Responsibility and dependability can’t flourish if a leader is unpredictable and imbalanced. The overall performance of a business is the result of other elements all coming together – rather like a scoreboard for a well-played game. If the leadership team are not able to play the best game, the results will reflect this.

Self-kindness (S) and our overall ability to be at our best is the very foundation of each of us – leaders included. Leaders (L) are foundational to a business and its ability to succeed and grow into the future (F). Therefore, we can say:

S x L = F

The outcome from our research was to create the CODES of Momentum model to help understand 5 elements that create self-kindness: 

  • C: Consciousness 
    More than just being aware of the importance of valuing yourself, this is a willingness to do something about it.
  • O: Open
    The need for self-honesty and to remove excuses about your own well-being
  • D: Deliberate 
    To start making good decisions on your behalf – to act with intent
  • E: Effort 
    A solid level of hard work and patience is needed to stay focused
  • S: See 
    To acknowledge the positives, be grateful and build self-growth

Most people can intellectually agree that self-kindness is important but then fail to build momentum – the following four steps. It requires leaders to stop being martyrs but to consider getting sufficient sleep, engaging a mentor or coach, taking a proper lunch break and so on. It’s about being human and once leaders can do this well, they can encourage others to follow suit. When we are at our best we can help others to be at their best. Simple.

Ultimately a business is simply a vehicle that requires alert drivers that are open to opportunities, can anticipate issues ahead so they are able to be proactive, innovative and get the passengers to the destination safely. The way to do this is to encourage a culture not just of kindness but of self-kindness that begins with the leadership team.

In the wonderful words of Dr Maya Angelou: 

“Nothing will work unless you do.”

– Maya Angelou