One of my leadership principles is that our team members are our top priority. People are our work and as leaders we need to make ourselves available to support them to ensure their success. However, we can’t effectively support them if we don’t take care of ourselves.
Years ago I went on a kayaking trip to the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior with my son and his scout troop. Our trip was run by a local outfitter; the man who ran the outfitter and our trip in particular guides adventure trips around the world and has logged some of the most miles in the Arctic and Antarctic of any living guide today. He and I chatted quite a bit as he has a lot of interesting stories, but his hiring strategy stood out to me. As he explained it, he not only needs guides that know their craft well, they have to know it so well that they can take care of themselves transparently while making sure everyone else on the trip was safe and cared for.
This extends the principle of making our team members our priority with the notion that our problems, our feelings, shouldn’t impact our teams. In fact, I’d offer that our feelings and problems don’t really matter to our teams, especially when they have struggles of their own. More to the point, when they look to us for leadership and guidance, we can’t respond with our own problems as an excuse for not helping them.
Imagine if I was on this kayaking trip trying to figure out how to put up my tent (I was) and the guide, instead of helping me, told me he didn’t like the tone I took and wandered away. Or if on an Antarctic trip with him, I told him I was worried about frostbite and his response was “yeah no doubt, i’m pretty sure I’ll need a couple toes cut off when we’re done.” The former is infuriating as we see our leaders’ job is to help us regardless. The latter would make us question the competence of who is in charge.
On the other hand, I don’t think we should try to appear perfect and invulnerable. We are human after all and demonstrating that is one of the best ways to build loyalty and trust as a leader.
In the balance, it is our responsibility to provide a steady, human hand to our teams, especially in the face of difficult situations. As I edit this we are faced with a pandemic the likes of which is unprecedented in my lifetime and this principle needs to hold more than ever to make sure we provide our teams what they need, at least as best we can. Our team members are going through a lot of stress, anxiety, and a gamut of emotions we may not be aware of. We are likely to encounter more difficult discussions than normal because of the escalated emotional stakes in our current world environment. This includes us leaders as we are all under increased stress, and yet we still need to provide a steady hand.
This doesn’t mean we should bury our stress or emotions. Going back to my guide’s original statement, he didn’t talk about sacrifice, burying needs, or not having to struggle. A good guide gets their group moving and gives them focus and support in a way that still enables the guides to have time to take care of themselves. On the trip I was on, the guides would get us all working together to set up a tent or the cooking area and then would quietly and quickly step away to set up their own area without us even realizing it.
A good leader needs to do the same - in fact we have to. In order for us to provide the stability required by our teams in difficult times, we need to make sure we are feeling sane and calm enough, even in the face of high stress.
As leaders, we need to make sure we are checking in on our teams and giving the support they need, but to not forget that we too need support and to seek it out (from peers, from our leaders) when we need it. In any kind of crisis it is easy to be overwhelmed by the stress and dump it down on the team, but we need to do our best to not let that happen.
Some of this can seem more challenging for folks that are moving to remote work for the first time, but the basic steps are easy:
Ultimately, our job as leaders is to take care of others, but we can’t do that without taking care of ourselves.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.