Your Most Important Leadership Strategy

So you have a shelf full of leadership books, and you’ve read them all. You’re looking forward to the next leadership conference, where you will seek ideas, inspiration, and some networking opportunities. You’ve taken several assessments to understand both your strengths and your weaknesses. You’re open to feedback, you’ve learned to delegate to others, and you’re always working on clear and inspiring communication.

You’ve got this leadership thing down.

Or have you?

Have you mastered the most important leadership strategy? The single most critical thing you can do as a leader to ensure longevity, sustainable momentum, and great results? Are you investing in your own well-being? Do you know how to be the best, healthiest, most hopeful version of yourself?

If not, all the leadership books in the world won’t keep you from crashing. All your skills will only lead you closer to the drought that awaits you in the future point when you have poured out everything and forgotten how to drink deeply.

Whether or not this is a new concept for you, I encourage you to consider ten ways to set yourself up for healthy and effective leadership.

Establish boundaries–and stick to them. These are boundaries with people and with time. You need to know what is a healthy workday for you, then stick to it and stop working. You need to know how much you can give to people who need you–and stop short of that limit. When emergencies arise, you may need to violate those boundaries. But if you’re consistently honoring them, you’ll have some reserves available so you can help.

Exercise self-care–give yourself what you need when you need it. This means understanding and addressing your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Take breaks, go to the doctor, establish healthy sleep habits, eat well, get some exercise, spend time in prayer, let yourself cry or laugh, find a spiritual director, mentor, or minister who is willing to invest in you.

Keep growing–you are not a finished product. You may be aware of ways you need to grow, places you need to get stronger, hurts or unhealthy patterns you need to address. If you’re not, consider the problems and conflicts that seem to raise their heads time and again in your life. There’s probably a need for growth behind them. Or ask your spouse or a trusted friend or sibling. Chances are, someone who loves you is well aware of a place in need of attention. Once you’ve found it, address it: find a counselor, a coach, a mentor, a book, or whatever solution can stretch you and help you move to that next level.

Feed your spirit–and prioritize your spiritual health. This is important for everyone, but it is particularly crucial for people who are responsible for the spiritual well-being of others. It can be easy to mistake others’ spiritual growth for our own, or to believe leading others in relationship with God is a substitute for nurturing our own relationship with God. It simply doesn’t work that way. No matter how lofty your position in relation to those who look up to you, you are not above the most basic spiritual needs of all humanity.

Never stop learning–it’s good for you. It will also help you stay humble, keep life’s challenges in perspective, and develop ways of thinking that shed new light on the problems you solve on a daily basis. Learning is most life-giving when it’s fun, and when it comes with a process of discovery. Humans have never had more options or opportunities for lifelong learning, so take advantage of them and find what you most enjoy! Read, watch videos, listen to podcasts, take classes, learn new skills. Challenge yourself to learn something new every day.

Nurture life-giving relationships–and if necessary, repair them. Some of us have higher social needs than others, but everyone needs relationships with people who help regenerate us, encourage us, and speak truth even when it’s hard. So seek out those relationships and invest in them. But remember, life-giving relationships are not necessarily easy relationships. Typically they are not. You will have to invest yourself and pay ongoing attention to the people you love. It can be easy for leaders to justify giving up, telling themselves they deserve–or need–hassle-free relationships that will simply soothe them. This kind of choice, like the thinking behind it, leads to tremendous destruction. If a relationship isn’t working, address it. Neglect can eventually lead to irreparable damage. Investment can lead to flourishing.

Be–don’t just do. Many leaders are task-oriented people who find their sense of value in what they accomplish. And other people’s feedback can reinforce this pattern, especially if you receive constant praise for what you do and hear very little appreciation for who you are. But ultimately, what you do flows out of who you are. And if you don’t know how to be first, then do, eventually your actions will begin to reflect an immature, unfocused, or languishing person inside. The results will not be pretty. So learn how to be who you are, and what you do will come from a much stronger source.

Enjoy life–remember to have fun. You already know life is serious. And you probably know how to get things done, even when you don’t enjoy them. But do you know how to take time out to do what you like to do? Do you remember that life can be fun and very, very funny? If you can’t see what’s good about the world and the people around you, you have reached a place of frightening imbalance. Make a list of what you’re thankful for, take the day off, and go do something fun. And re-read the rest of this list.

Find your purpose–or remember it. Maybe you already have a strong sense of your overarching purpose in life. Mayve you haven’t really thought about it. Either way, you need that sense of mission and meaning to drive you if you’re going to stay engaged, on track, and enthusiastic over the long race. So why are you doing what you’re doing? Why did you decide to do it at the beginning? What is your life about? What unique sense of calling gives your life a unified sense of direction? Work with a coach, like me, or find some other resource that can help you develop that motivating intention.

Know your limitations–and honor them. I’m sorry to break it to you so harshly, but you are not the savior of the world. You are not the one exception to the limits of human endurance. You are not the only one who can do it right (whatever “it” is). Some leaders desperately want to be heroes; others simply have more than the average share of hubris. Stories of pride never end well, so make yours a story of humble and sober acknowledgement of your capacity and its limits. Then stop before you hit that wall.

On that shelf of leadership books, I wish you had a book of cautionary tales. But I’m not sure anyone has written that one. The way to leadership burnout is well-established and predictable, yet so many people never see it coming. Pay attention to your own well-being, and maybe you won’t see it at all.

© 2017 Amy Simpson.