7 Ways Great Leaders Can Stay Emotionally Healthy

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by Dr. Tracy Brower, guest contributor

Great leadership has never been easy, especially if you’re doing it well. But it’s arguably harder now than it’s been in the recent past, and it requires a great amount of emotional labor. There are reasons for this—from the climate outside of organizations to mental health issues and the competition for talent. The impact is significant: Leadership requires more skills, capability, finesse, nuance, judgement and art today.

Emotional labor is the work people do to manage feelings and regulate how they come across to others, so interactions can be successful. It is also the effort to stay healthy and optimistic in the face of stress, demands and high expectations. It’s the effort to be aware of emotions, and decide moment-by-moment about how to express them—and it’s becoming a critical leadership competency for the future of work.

The Pressure Is On

Great leadership is easier in calm seas, but as storms arise, leadership gets tougher. It’s always about setting a course, but this is less easily done when the horizon isn’t in sight. And it’s always about motivating crews for rigorous rowing, but this is a bigger challenge when it’s rainy, rough or cold on the water.

Emotional labor is heightened when there is more pressure and when the stakes are higher. Work has become more complex, and things are moving faster—but there are additional conditions which make things challenging as well:

  • The climate outside of companies has become polarized and divisive, putting leaders under pressure to find their voice and express strong points of view—or to hold back at the right times. This can be risky for leaders because people have a wide range of perspectives, and it is impossible for any leader’s opinion to be acceptable to everyone.
  • Mental health and wellbeing are deteriorating. Increasingly, people are reporting greater depression, anxiety and challenges with cognitive processing, based on stress. Leaders are experiencing this themselves, but they also face higher expectations to support people’s emotional, physical and cognitive wellbeing. It’s wonderful for leaders to express greater empathy, care and compassion, but this also expands the pressure on leaders.
  • The talent revolution is real. According to a study by Monster, a third of workers regularly think about quitting their jobs, and research by Microsoft found 52% are likely to change employers this year. Fidelity data reveals 61% already have. And leaders are still cited as the primary reason people quit their jobs, so leaders are under increasing demands to attract and select great people, and to hold onto them by engaging, motivating and inspiring them.
  • Work is changing. Work is shifting fundamentally—with more remote work and with hybrid work becoming the norm. Leaders must influence new policies and practices and establish new approaches to work—to facilitate success for individuals, teams and organizations. And they must find ways to build proximity, accessibility and trust when people are more distant.

Meeting the Challenge

With all the intensity and challenging conditions, emotional labor dictates leaders may feel greater concerns for others and worry about their own skills to meet the new pressure they are under. But leaders can cope in some key ways—managing the emotional labor so they can be their best and bring their best.

#1 Take a Breath

Leaders can manage their emotional labor by recognizing and validating their own situations. It’s reasonable that leaders may be feeling more stress and it’s understandable they may be feeling greater intensity at work. And validating this experience can be extraordinarily helpful. Psychologically, just understanding a situation and giving yourself permission to be stressed or imperfect can actually reduce distress. So, leaders can take a breath, give themselves space and recognize they’re going through a lot.

#2 Reflect

As a leader, you can also manage your emotional labor by assessing where you are and where you’re going. Consider things you’re already doing well, and evaluate the areas where you may want to improve. Give thought to the impact you’d like to have, and what you would like to be known for. Also consider your context—including your industry, your department, your role and your team—and what success looks like based on these. And give thought to what makes you unique and how you bring something special to leadership.

#3 Build Skills

One of the elements that causes stress and burnout, is when people don’t feel they have the capacity or skills to address the demands they face. So leaders can manage their situations effectively by building their capabilities. Through formal learning, informal connections or mentoring, leaders are wise to seek to learn, enhance their abilities and build their confidence—all of which will support them in the emotional (and task-based) labor they must perform.

In addition, leaders are wise to focus on progress over perfection. People won’t expect you to be perfect, but they will appreciate seeing you make progress. Do the best you can. When you’re learning something new, you won’t be flawless—but you don’t have to be. Remove the pressure to perform at an ideal level, and commit to incremental improvement.

#4 Form Alliances

Leaders can also support themselves by looking to others. One of the tough things about leadership is the need to be honest and authentic with team members, balanced with the need to be professional and communicate appropriately. Leaders gain trust and credibility when they are fully themselves with their teams, being open about their struggles, but it’s also important to set boundaries and not share too much with team members. Some aspects of leaders’ fears, frustrations or anxieties are better shared with a close colleague who is also a leader, and whom the leader can trust implicitly. All leaders need a place to let down their hair, and forming a close relationship with one or two other co-workers can be tremendously helpful when leaders need safe-harbor support.

#5 Manage Boundaries

Another way leaders can maintain their own emotional health is by managing boundaries. Too often, leaders take on additional work in order to protect their team members. Or they may put off a vacation—or work during a vacation—in order to reduce the demands on their team. But in reality, leaders are better to delegate and empower those around them. By working hard but not sacrificing their own wellbeing, leaders model work-life fulfillment more effectivity, and therefore influence their team members in positive ways as well.

#6 Focus On the Long Term

Another characteristic of burnout is feeling trapped, so by keeping the bigger picture in mind, leaders also help sustain their emotional health and overall wellbeing. Leaders can remind themselves about the inevitable ebb and flow of work, and how things will change and evolve over time. Challenges today will turn into resilience tomorrow. And facing difficulties will build their skills, perspectives and capabilities over the long term. At the same time leaders should validate where they are, they are also smart to be hopeful and optimistic that they won’t always be in the same place.

#7 Be Yourself

As the saying goes, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” As you’re considering how you lead and how you can foster your wellbeing, be sure to stay true to your own style. The best approach often comes in the fine-tuning of your own core capabilities and gifts, rather than a complete overhaul. You’re in a leadership role because others see your current talents and future potential. Reassure yourself about your strengths, and use your confidence as a springboard for moving forward. 

In Summary

Leadership is fundamentally a hopeful pursuit. By definition, leaders are setting direction, making things happen and inspiring action to execute the next project, accomplish the new initiative or achieve tomorrow’s vision. The seas can be rough, but leaders can be realistic about where they are and optimistic about where they are going—and where they can motivate others to go as well.

Dr. Tracy Brower is a PhD sociologist and the author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work 


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