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Leadership and wellness: Two sides of the same coin

A million people have written a million articles about the traits of a great leader. Almost all of them focus on everything except the leader.

Think about it: You read all the time about how to build great teams, design great workplaces, create great cultures, plan great strategies. Today’s leadership literature is all about how to manage / inspire / motivate / educate / recruit / retain others.

Here’s the thing, though: Leadership ends there. It starts with the leaders themselves. If you don’t take care of yourself, how can you possibly be expected to take care of anyone else?

Ed Kless offered some remarkable thoughts on the subject during the 2015 Sage Summit in New Orleans. Ed is senior director of partner development and strategy at Sage, and I love listening to him speak, because he forces you to think about common issues in uncommon ways.

Take leadership. According to Kless, many leadership “fixes” focus on a couple of key areas:

  1. Motivating the unmotivated, which is really a fool’s errand. Talk about spinning your wheels. “Leaders should avoid trying to instill insight into the unmotivated,” Kless said.
  2. Focus instead on first healing yourself. The key here, Kless said, is to reduce our levels anxiety.

But not just any anxiety. Most leadership advice focuses on reducing what Kless calls our “episodic” anxiety — the worries and stress that accompany daily tasks. That type of anxiety has its peaks and valleys; it rises and falls based on the task at hand. And since it’s something we all deal with, we can assume it’s not what separates good leaders from the truly great ones.

The difference lies in what Kless calls “chronic” anxiety. That’s the stuff we bring with us to the office — the personal, private worries and stress that have nothing to do with work but which impact our professional performance nonetheless.

If our levels of episodic anxiety are roughly equal, we can assume that the most successful leaders are those with the lowest levels of chronic anxiety.

So how do we reduce our chronic anxiety? That’s a difficult question to answer, but Kless identifies two great places to start:

  1. Breathe … and concentrate on your breathing in an almost meditation-like state.
  2. Focus on something or someone for whom you are grateful. “You cannot be anxious when you are focused on gratitude,” Kless said.

Kless claims leadership is all about self-regulation. It’s about setting anxiety aside and being present in the moment. Those who can do that have five things in common:

  1. They can separate themselves from the surrounding emotional processes.
  2. They are clear about their principles and vision.
  3. They are willing to be exposed and vulnerable.
  4. They are persistent in the face of resistance.
  5. They can self-regulate when faced with “reactive sabotage,” which Kless says is a given. “There are some who are emotionally invested in keeping anxiety alive.”

Don’t let them. Take care of yourself. You can’t lead if you’re not well.

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