Before the Fellowship, many of my definitions of leadership involved flawed views of responsibility and service. I felt as a leader it was my job to make sure things operated well in our organization and that was the measure of my success as a leader. I also thought that serving our staff and trainees meant needing to self-sacrifice to achieve organizational success. As you might imagine, these beliefs and the behaviors associated frequently led to major seasons of burnout.
I now see that true leadership involves building a team, making roles clear and attainable with the right people in the right seat, and then setting the vision and strategy. Instead of feeling all of the weight on my own shoulders, I have practiced sharing both the responsibility and the success with others. I have also accepted that my value and success as a leader is not defined by perfect operations, but by my willingness to invite people to be better each day and hold the hope for what we together can accomplish. My ability to correct our course when we get off track is a far more accurate view of my effectiveness as a leader than a flawless operation. After all, if we are not occasionally failing, we likely are not pushing ourselves to achieve our true potential and make our greatest impact.
By focusing on my own leadership, I feel I have stopped being the bottleneck to growing the impact of our organization. I now have the tools in my toolbox to address my fears of failure and cycles of burnout in order to take us to the next stage of growth. I also find that by being more confident and more vulnerable with my staff, I invite them to step into new or risky opportunities as well. We are all striving for excellence, not perfection, which has allowed us all to bring our true selves (including wild ideas and dreams) to work each day.
One of the biggest mental challenges for me was to stop defining my productivity by my output and count of completed tasks. The act of leadership development can feel very unproductive as it isn’t an immediate shift, nor something that sometimes anyone else can see or measure. The process for me has also not been a straight line. There were many periods during the last year and a half where I would get frustrated with myself that I had “still” not learned certain lessons and repeated mistakes. The saying of two steps forward, one step back resonated for me. And then there would be periods that tested my new leadership skills, and I could see a complete difference in how I responded, feeling really proud of my new mode of operating.
Self-care for me has shifted from something that I did to recover from burnout to something I do in order to avoid burning out. I previously would work at an intense and unhealthy pace for months on end and then need to take a week off to completely unplug. Now I view the basics like drinking water during the day, sleeping at night, and enjoying the weekends as radical acts of self-care. As leaders too often we like to believe we are superheroes and immune to our human needs, but that behavior, whether we mean to or not, quickly becomes acceptable to our staff. As leaders we must model caring for ourselves, so that our teams take care of themselves, and then in turn we all can care for those we have the honor of serving.
To go a little deeper on my comment about the radical act of self-care of enjoying weekends, a Harvard Business Review article about treating weekends like vacation has been forever life-changing to me. I used to view weekends as catch-up time for both work and my personal chores. By holding that weekend time sacred for “vacation” I had to change my approach to my evenings during the week, but it then freed up time to go on adventures, start cooking again, and be far more present during time spent with the people in my life. And the article which suggested that people who truly took the weekend off found themselves far more energized for the week was proven true very quickly for me. This refresh didn’t require a massage or a luxurious vacation, just my willingness to change my behaviors and set boundaries.
At the interview process for this Fellowship, the concept of transformation was hard to understand or imagine. I now reflect and can truly see how my view of leadership and myself has been transformed. I look forward to seeing how that transformative work continues in my remaining 6 months of the Fellowship and long after.