Prioritize Your Health
Leaders are especially vulnerable to stress. Often leaders put others first and sacrifice their own wellbeing in the process. That’s not a recipe for long-term success and often results in failure.
Danielle Harlan, PhD is the Founder & CEO of the Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential. She completed her doctorate at Stanford University and has taught courses at both Stanford Graduate School of Business and U.C. Berkeley Extension’s Corporate and Professional Development program.
After reading her book, The New Alpha: Join the Rising Movement of Influencers and Changemakers Who Are Redefining Leadership, I asked her about her research and experience in leadership health and fitness.
Your Health and Your Leadership
When did you realize that prioritizing health was linked to leadership?
Leadership is fundamentally about being able to set a vision and persist over the long run as you lead yourself and others to take on big challenges and work toward the finish line, so it seems like making health a priority would be a no-brainer, right? I mean, it’s pretty obvious that taking care of ourselves affects our energy levels and stamina in the long run.
However, in my experience, this is the one aspect of personal excellence that leaders are most likely to struggle with—and this is true across industries, types of organizations, and roles. As the work piles up, self-care often takes a back seat to other more “pressing” priorities, which almost never leads to good outcomes in the long run.
More often than not, leaders who don’t prioritize their health either become unbearable to work with because they they’re dehydrated, or tired, or stressed, or “hangry”—or they start to get sick. I’ve worked with people who’ve developed diabetes, pre-diabetes, and even heart disease because they’ve put work ahead of their health. I’ve also known people who’ve gained or lost too much weight because of work and even someone who eventually had an aneurism. I’m not saying that there weren’t other factors that played a role in some of these cases, but all of these examples are of people who put work ahead of self-care, and I think they (and their teams and organizations) suffered for it.
After seeing this pattern of behavior and outcomes over and over again, it became clear to me that managing your health is a key component of being an effective human being and a successful leader.
The Dangers of Putting Work Ahead of Self
Why do you think so many people miss this important link (leadership / wellness) to their detriment?
I think putting work ahead of self-care actually comes from a good place—a desire to put forth our best effort and do as much good as possible, and people can be very effective in the short run by working this way (I’ve definitely had moments, for example, where I’ve sacrificed sleep in order to meet a big deadline).
The problem arises when we consistently put “achievement” ahead of our health and wellness, which simply isn’t sustainable in the long run—and I think The New Alpha gives people permission to re-prioritize their health and wellness, even if it means perhaps being slightly less effective on a few short-term tasks.
4 Steps to Improve Your Health Today
What do you say to someone who is reading this saying, “Yeah, I know: diet and exercise. I’ll get to it. I know.” In other words, they know, but they don’t do. How do you get them to take action?
I can relate to this since I’ve struggled with this exact feeling—as in: “I know I should take care of myself…” but it’s difficult to turn that “should” into action, especially given everything else on my plate.
For others who experience this same issue, here’s what’s worked for me and many of my clients:
- Do it first thing. Research shows that willpower decreases over the course of the day, so if there’s some aspect of self-care that you don’t love doing, like exercise, make yourself do it first thing in the morning before your willpower gets depleted by other tasks.
- Make a weekly meal plan. Seriously, take some time to create a weekly menu of what you’ll eat for each meal and then only buy foods off of that menu (You can make a few of these if you want variety). (If you’re feeling pressed for time, a quick google search will yield some good options here.) The point is that having a routine around what you eat will make it much, much easier to eat healthy foods…think about how many times you’ve been hungry, and not been sure what your next meal will be, so you grab something unhealthy…if I don’t have a set menu of what I eat, then I inevitably end up eating potato chips. The same is true for most of us.
- Make specific plans. Research shows that if you create specific plans for your goals, then you’re much more likely to achieve them. So for example, if your goal is to drink more water throughout the day, make a plan for how you’ll do this—for example, “I’ll buy two big water bottles and bring them to work with me every day,” or “I’ll set an alarm to go off every hour to remind me to drink a glass of water.” The more specific you are in your planning, the more likely it is that you’ll stick to the plan.
- Start small. I think sometimes we think that we have to be “all or nothing” in order to be healthy, but that’s pretty unrealistic for most people. For example, if you want to get into running, but the idea of running a mile day feels overwhelming and unappealing, try just walking for 15 minutes a day. You can do this during your lunch break, after work with your dog, or with a friend. Over time, you can increase the length or intensity, but the point is that you can start small and pick off one thing at a time to tackle.
Would you share just a few tips on reducing stress?
Let me just start by saying that stress isn’t always a bad thing. Kelly McGonigal has a great TEDGlobal talk (and book!) on this, but the basic idea is that how we perceive stress (rather than the stress itself) affects how it impacts our health. So, for example, if I perceive the stress that I feel before delivering a big keynote address as a good thing (like my body getting me amped up to give a first-rate performance!), then this stress can actually be good for me. If on the other hand, I see this stress as a negative experience, then it can negatively impact my health.
With that said, I can definitely empathize with people’s desire to reduce stress in situations where it just doesn’t feel like a positive experience, and my recommendation here is to think about: a) how you can recognize stress when it’s coming (e.g., is it a feeling in the pit of your stomach, or is it an increased heart rate, or something else?) and then b) think about what you can do to dissipate the stress when it does come on (e.g., can you go for a run, call a relative, meditate, do something creative, or something else?).
Then, make a list of your “stress busters” and post them somewhere that you’ll see them when you need them.
Thinking through potential strategies in advance will help you to work through the stress and posting them somewhere that you’ll see them regularly will encourage you to actually use them.
The New Alpha: Join the Rising Movement of Influencers and Changemakers Who Are Redefining Leadership