“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.” –Woodrow Wilson
Those words are weighty. You and I want to have an impact in the world around us, want to rise and shine in whatever industry we choose. But leadership isn’t for the faint-hearted. In fact, leadership development and training is a multi-BILLION dollar business, and there are more than 15,000 books in print dedicated to teaching you and me how to be more effective, more productive, and more visionary as we climb the ladder of success.
Some experts estimate that at least 50% of CEOs have battled depression at some point, and research indicates that those in leadership positions are twice as likely to experience depression as the general public.
Loneliness and isolation are cited as challenges; in fact, leadership consultant Annee Ngo says, “Being a “CEO” is not everything the movies make it out to be. It’s terrifying, exhausting, and sometimes feels impossible. Your 9 to 5 lives in reverse; beginning at 5am and if you’re lucky, ending at 9pm. I live, eat, breathe our business. I wake up and go to sleep thinking about our business. It’s hard as hell.”
I know the challenges first-hand. I’ve battled both depression and anxiety in leadership, and I’ve felt the weight of loneliness and isolation as I felt torn between executive directives and meeting the needs of my teams. Again, leadership isn’t for the faint-hearted. But there are twelve things you can do right now to help you be a better leader—even if you’re years away from sitting in a corner office. Some might make you smile because of their simplicity. Some might make you think in new ways about what it means to lead well. Most are things you were taught to do as a child, though you might learn new reasons why they’re so important. And all twelve can be put into practice in your life right now.
First, let’s talk about the essentials.
Get some sleep.
Sleep isn’t just a reward for weariness. It’s also essential to your physical and mental health. Get sleep, and you’ll be able to focus, concentrate, and remember things more clearly. You’ll have a better handle on emotions and be able manage stress more effectively. And your body will thank you as it’s able to heal, rejuvenate, and function better.
Drink your water.
Most of us know that our bodies are largely water, and that we need water to help our bodies stay regulated and healthy. But did you know that one of the first things mental health experts are taught in caring for patients is to keep them hydrated? Yes, the human brain is made up of about 75% water, and even minor dehydration impacts our ability to process thoughts, solve problems, and manage our moods and emotions.
Eat something good.
I promise, I’m not going to share a food pyramid or extol the virtues of a specific dietary plan. I’ll just remind you of what you already know: your body can’t function without fuel. And a healthy diet does more than give those cheeks a rosy glow or keep your bones strong. Eating at regular intervals keeps your moods in check, gives you energy to keep going, and even helps your brain with short and long-term memory function.
Go outside and play.
From the time you and I were small children, we’ve been told about the health benefits of exercise, from weight management to better and more restful sleep. But the Journal of Managerial Psychology shared that leaders who exercise regularly are regarded by their teams as better leaders. Improved decision-making skills are one of the benefits. Read this article published by Health Designs for the full list of reasons why:
Now, let’s talk about connection.
Gather your people.
While taking care of the essentials are, well, essential, becoming a better leader doesn’t stop with diet and exercise. Loneliness impacts more than your outlook as a leader. It’s been reported that isolation can impact your health as well. According to researchers, the risk of death among both men and women increases dramatically as social connections decrease.
Now, being socially connected doesn’t mean being best friends with everyone you meet. But it does mean gathering with family and friends who will be your listening ears, broad shoulders, and pacesetters on the journey.
Gather also a circle of peers who can be professional sounding boards or tension breakers. Cultivate relationships that create a greater sense of community and collaboration within your organization, not only for you but for others as well.
“We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community.” ~Dorothy Day
There are countless articles on the emotional benefits of volunteering your time, talent, and treasure. Serving others makes us happier. But there’s more. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports that engaging in what they call “prosocial activities” meets some very basic needs in us. Serving others gives us a sense of autonomy, a greater feeling of competence, and most of all, the healing power of connection. Volunteering wraps need in humanity and reminds us that we all want to feel seen and known. Serving others can open our eyes to see the deeper needs of our teams and ourselves.
“Helping others can actually create the sense of meaning we’re seeking. Rather than ruminating on what makes our life worthwhile as we work toward burnout, we can find the answer outside ourselves, in human connection.” – Elizabeth Hopper, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Berkeley
Become a beginner.
Climbing the ladder of success carries with it the weight of knowing things—all things. We are expected to be the experts, the answer-bearers, the vision-casters, the keepers of wisdom. While it may be flattering to be lauded for our expertise, we are far more effective when we assume the posture of a student. In her book, The Next Right Thing, Emily P. Freeman says, “See if you can find a way to access the child you still are on the inside. Though our bodies age, our souls stay young in so many ways—always looking to be loved, to be safe, and to be welcome. Rather than becoming an expert, children are free to be curious. Children know how to sit down and let other people know things for a change. Children are able to observe, to watch, to make mistakes, and to learn new things.”
No matter our level of leadership, you and I should never be afraid to become beginners again and again.
Take a class. Try something new. Participate in mentoring groups and peer learning teams. Becoming a beginner doesn’t only provide opportunity to develop new relationships and new skills at the same time, but it also strengthens the empathy and connection we have toward those we lead.
Work it out.
It may seem pretty elementary to remind us to keep working as we move toward positions of leadership.
But far too many leaders separate themselves from the day-to-day rigors of their in-the-trenches employees, and in doing so can lose the very trust they’ve worked hard to gain from those employees.
Now, that doesn’t mean you need to keep doing the same job as a leader that you were doing when you first began your career. But being a better leader means inviting teams into the conversation of what defines quality, success, sustainability. Working with your teams allows them to have a greater sense of ownership and accountability in the life of your organization. Involving others in the success of your organization, even when you are first beginning your career journey, also builds trust in you as a potential leader down the road. So, keep working with your team. Give them an opportunity to actively contribute to the work you do together.
“None of us is as smart as all of us.” – Ken Blanchard, author and leadership expert
And finally, let’s talk about your heart.
“Wait,” you might be thinking right now. “Didn’t we already talk about health?” You’re right. We did. But the final four keys to being a better leader are about your heart and soul. Like eating and drinking water, these will be familiar to you. I promise not to labor too long on each of them. But like taking care of your body, these are things that are easily pushed to the side when calendars grow crowded and pressures mount.
You gotta pray every day.
In addition to the faith-building benefits of genuine daily conversation with God, prayer has been proven to improve your health. That’s right! Regular prayer has been shown to reduce stress—and reduced stress is healing. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and mental acuity receive the blessing of daily prayer. And even long-term diseases like cancer may be thwarted by praying regularly.
And praying for others helps transform the way you SEE others. Prayer impacts our attitude toward those around us as we lift up our petitions to God and trust Him to respond.
Simple journaling is another way to engage in genuine conversation with God. It—along with prayer and reading scripture—is a powerful trifecta in strengthening faith, building fortitude, and rightly aligning our focus. And like prayer, personal writing has both physical and relational benefits. Studies show that even a small amount of journaling each day can lower blood pressure, improve liver and lung function, and improve your immune system! Journaling also has a positive impact on mood and mindfulness. And for leaders, journaling can help uncover growth opportunities and new ways to collaborate, problem-solve, and engage others.
Let it go.
In training nonprofit volunteers, I share this tip often: “Those with hands open to give are then able to receive.” Opening our hands as leaders may look like giving those who work for us the opportunity to rise as leaders themselves. We receive support and community, and we gain confidence. It may look like no longer dwelling on difficult days or frustrating seasons, but rather evaluating them, learning from them, and receiving peace of mind. It may look like admitting that we are still open to learning, to growing, to thinking in new ways, to being humbled, to being surprised and delighted by God and those around us.
You knew this would be part of the twelve secrets, though it’s not much of a secret at all. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “Gratitude can be defined as a positive emotion felt after receiving something valuable. And science has shown that people who are grateful feel happier. They have an improved sense of well-being, higher self-esteem, and experience less depression and anxiety. They also sleep better. And one study even found that differences in levels of gratitude is responsible for about 20% of individual differences in overall life satisfaction… We can’t be grateful that someone went out of his or her way to help us unless we stop and think about the situation from the other person’s perspective. It’s little wonder that gratitude has also been linked to oxytocin — the hormone associated with social bonding.”
Yes, gratitude is good for our heart and soul. It connects us. It changes us. And it makes us better leaders. In fact, 80% of employees say that having a grateful leader would inspire them to work harder.
What other secrets to being a better leader would you add to this list? What stories do you have of better leadership in action? Share them with us!