The Calm Leader: Why You Need to Put Your Own Mask on First

As a leader, you want to be there for your team, to support them and help them succeed. But sometimes, it can be hard to focus on others when you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and uncertain yourself. That’s why it’s so important to prioritize self-care and put your own mask on first before you try to help others.

I learned this lesson the hard way. When I first started as a leader, I was eager to help my team succeed, but I was also constantly stressed, worried, and anxious. I struggled to stay focused and often found myself snapping at my team or making mistakes. I was also bringing my stress home at night, working late to catch up on things not done during the day, and having little time or patience for my young family—I was there physically but wasn’t present. When I realized I was being snappy with them, too, I knew I needed to make a change, but I wasn’t sure where to start.

That’s when I decided to work with a coach to manage my stress and gain more control over my emotions. I was reminded of my scuba and aviation training – two environments where unrelieved stress can be fatal:

Under the water, when we recognize that we’re starting to stress (e.g. fast heartbeat, breathing hard/fast/erratically, rapid and incomplete thoughts), our first act of self-rescue is to Stop – Breathe – Think – Act. Once more for those at the back: 

Stop.  Breathe.

In Aviation, if things go sideways and the oxygen masks are needed, we do the same on the flight deck as we tell the passengers: we put our own mask on first. Even if I, as a First Officer, saw my Captain having trouble with their mask, my job, my duty, is to be selfish and take care of mine first. Why? Because if I try to help the Captain first and I pass out from lack of oxygen while doing so, then both of us are taken out of action, and the plane is doomed. 

A born helper and giver, it wasn’t an easy transition for me, but over time, I began to see the benefits of taking care of myself first at work and at home. I was able to stay calm and focused in high-pressure situations, and I had more energy and patience to support my team. And, because I was handling my days better, I had less to do at night, and my family was able to enjoy having me present again.

As you can see, getting calm is SO important to being a good leader. That’s why it’s the first thing I work on with my clients. If you’re a leader who’s feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or uncertain, I encourage you to take a step back and focus on yourself first. Here are some tips and strategies that have worked for me:

  • Identify your stressors: Take some time to reflect on what’s causing you stress and anxiety. Are there specific situations or people that trigger your stress? Understanding your stressors can help you prepare for them and develop coping strategies.
  • Practice self-care: Make time for activities that help you relax and recharge. This might include exercise, meditation, reading, or spending time with loved ones. Whatever it is, prioritize self-care as an essential part of your routine.
  • Seek support: Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Whether it’s talking to a trusted friend or colleague, or working with a coach or therapist, reaching out for support can help you gain perspective and feel less alone.
  • Practice active listening: When you’re talking to others, make an effort to really listen and understand their perspective. This can help you build stronger relationships, reduce conflicts, and create a more positive work environment.

Remember, taking care of yourself isn’t just important for your own well-being, it’s also essential for your ability to lead effectively. When you’re calm, focused, and energized, you’ll be better equipped to support your team and achieve your goals. So put your own mask on first, and let the calm leader in you shine through.

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