How to Be a Stellar Leader When You're ExhaustedThere’s a light at the end of the tunnel and many of us are feeling boosted by having gotten jabbed, seeing our families and friends immunized or on the road to it, getting that first appointment, or knowing that we’ll get it soon. 

Still, it will take some time to get back to normal.

(Actually, for a variety of reasons, I hope we don’t go back to “normal” but create a new and improved normal.)

As we prepare for what I’ll call “The Great Return,” we should be aware of the fact that these are still uncertain times, many of our team members may be exhausted by what they’ve experienced since March 2020, and you, dear leader, may be, too. 

Still, organizations, team members, followers, call them what you will, want leadership. They crave it. They need it because they may be anxious about the return, they may be exhausted, and they may be burned out. 

So you must lead despite your possibly feeling anxious, exhausted, or burned out.

What’s a leader to do? 

Here are some suggestions: 

Do a Deep Dive On Self-Awareness

We executive coaches know that we cannot coach our clients if we’re not in a good place, mentally and emotionally, and that we’re obligated to take the steps to get to that place before any coaching session.

The same applies to you: you can’t effectively lead your team unless you’re in a good place. Start by asking yourself how you’re doing, how you’re really doing, and answer honestly.

If you’re feeling particularly brave—and you know I view courage as one of the most important leadership attributes—speak with one or a few of your followers or peers regarding how they’d rate you for your leadership over the past few weeks. 

You’ll rarely get all As from everyone, but if you’re getting lots of Cs, or even C+s, that tells you something. 

If the feedback, from yourself and others, is that you’re not in the optimal place to lead,  acknowledge it and take some action: this could be starting or getting back to physical activity, taking an assessment of your leadership strengths (it’s OK to celebrate them), or assessing your leadership opportunity areas (I’m intentionally not calling them “weaknesses,” because I don’t see them that way).

Next, create a leadership action plan that will get, and keep you, in your ideal leadership zone.

This might include enhancing your knowledge of emotional intelligence, reading a highly recommended book on leadership, or choosing a leadership website or podcast to visit regularly.

Surrounding yourself with leadership insights, knowledge, and practical tips can have a great effect on our ability to lead. 

And it all starts with self-awareness. 

Jump Into Self-Care

If you’ve taken step one above, you’re a little more aware of where you are, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Now it’s time to think about where you want to be, and an action plan to get there—and at least part of that must include greater self-care. 

As I’ve been saying for months, you can’t fill others’ cups while yours is depleted. 

And there’s a reason that when traveling by air, we’re instructed to put on our own oxygen masks before helping our traveling companions with theirs. This is the same. 

So think about what you need and more importantly, want to do to take care of yourself.

Some of your choices include more physical activity, more time in nature, perhaps more physical activity in nature, yoga, meditation, mindfulness.

The list is nearly endless, as are the benefits you’ll receive.

The key is to do something and do it consistently. I hope you’ll do it for yourself. But if not, consider doing it for your family and your team. 

Double Down On Empathy

If I may misquote Thomas Paine, these have been the times that had the potential to try men’s and women’s souls. 

Remember, we don’t just lead teams, we lead individuals. Humans, if I may. And just as you may not be in a good place, mentally, emotionally, and physically right now, they might not be either. 

More important just because you’re in a good place, and most of your team is in a good place now, that doesn’t mean they all are. 

It’s your job as a leader to lead all those humans, remembering that those not in a good place need your leadership, not only more than the others do, but possibly more than ever. 

So as we get ready for the great return, focus on empathy.

While there may be many definitions of empathy, I like this one from the New York Times, “It’s understanding how others feel and being compassionate toward them.”  

Being a truly empathetic leader takes an understanding of what empathy is, and practice. And it’s well worth it. 

Not to generalize, but if you’re a more-than-middle-aged man leading a firm, department, or group, you may not understand what it’s like to be a thirtyish or fortyish woman on your team who has school-age children at home.

But you need to, and pronto. 

The sad reality is that in homes with working parents, the woman still owns most of the responsibility for the family and home

And none of this has been easy for them or their families. Think what many of them have experienced for more than a year: the switch to virtual learning, in some cases the return to in-person learning, in some cases the return to virtual learning, for some the hybrid approach, and for many the return to in-person learning again. 

And unless you’re a parent who is expected to get straight As while assuring our youngsters are learning online while meeting key work, client, and career KPIs, I don’t think you can imagine just how tough, brain-numbing, and exhausting it is.   

The sad reality is that we’ve lost many women from the workplace because this responsibility and lack of division of responsibilities has proven to be just too much for too many women.

When women leave the workplace for this reason, nearly everyone loses: their organizations, their clients, their bosses, and their teams. 

If you don’t want that to be the case with your organization, dial-up your empathy. NOW. 

Speaking of empathy, if you’re an internal or external client, remember that just like all leaders, you can choose to embrace the “command and control” approach in leading your agency or the “collaborate and coach.”

And every agency leader will tell you that the latter is hands-down the way to maximize your agency’s performance. So perhaps dialing up your empathy for what your agency partners are going through will benefit you and your organization. 

A Leader Must Remember That Energy Is Contagious, Part One

This is an important point to remember, even if my word choice might seem odd for these times.  But it’s true: our energy is reflective and contagious. 

What that means is if you’re focused on “Woe is me. We’ve lost lots of clients. We’ve lost lots of business. I don’t think we can get our company back on track,” or similar, your followers (and that can include your team members, your peers, your stakeholders, and your boss) will start to believe it, and that’s where they’ll “live.”

Good luck trying to go from “survive” to “thrive” if that’s the energy in your workplace. 

Equally, if you bring an angry, conflict-ridden, “What’s wrong and most of all, whose fault is it” energy to your organization, you’ll get that back. In spades. 

But if you bring an opportunistic mindset, if you believe that you and your team are capable of pivoting (and you might have already), if you expect the unexpected and are even a little excited about what you can learn from that, your team will be as well. 

Further, if you believe that you have the capability to get your team through anything (after all, you just got them through a global pandemic, for which there was no playbook) they’ll believe you, and they’ll follow you. 

Remember That Energy Is Contagious, Part Two

Just as your energy permeates your organization, each team member’s energy is catching, down, across, and yes, up. 

First, be on the alert for folks who are sharing their burn-out or other negative energy.

Second, be on guard to make sure that you don’t catch it.

Next, as a leader, step in and determine what your team member needs to get out of that state (A spa day? A few hours off? Some coaching) and provide it if you can.  

Please know there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Take a deep breath, use whichever points above resonate, and believe me, you’ll feel energized rather than exhausted.

More so, you’ll be leading more effectively, and you, your teams, and your organizations will be in a better place when we get to the other side!

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs, PCC, CPC, ELI-MP, a certified executive coach, is the principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. His company helps leaders, CEOs, agency owners, senior executives, and managers in the communications space achieve their organizational, career, and personal goals by becoming effective, inspired, and inspired leaders.

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