If you have flown very often, you will recognize the following . . .
In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop down in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person. Keep your mask on until a uniformed crew member advises you to remove it.
I’ve flown over two million miles so I have heard this announcement many times – so often that it seldom even registers with me. Two things about this announcement are profoundly true:
– If the oxygen mask were to show up in front of me, the situation would absolutely require my attention.
– If I were traveling with someone else in this emergency situation, the best way for me to help them is to put my mask on first so I am able to help.
Let’s think about leadership for a minute.
– Challenges and problems happen in our businesses and with our teams all the time – and they absolutely require our attention.
– Since I am leading this team, the best way for me to help the team deal with the challenges they face is to take care of myself first, so I can best take care of them.
I hope you see the direct parallel here – as a leader you must put your mask on first.
As Oprah made a living reminding her audience, it isn’t selfish to take care of your needs – if you aren’t healthy, you can’t help others.
It’s just another way of saying that you’ve got to put your mask on first.
While there are some leaders who are selfish, focused solely on their needs, their purposes and their power, I know that isn’t you reading this. If you are, as many of you likely are, striving to be a servant leader, you might think you must be a nurturer of others, and be selfless in helping others succeed. That is a wonderful goal, but we mustn’t under-compensate.
To lead effectively, to lead successfully, to lead in the long term and yes to lead selflessly, we must still put our mask on first.
Here are a few ways to do that.
Close your door. You have (important) work to do to support the organization. Yes, you need to be available to answer questions and help your team, but you have work to do too. Sometimes you have to close the door. (I wrote more fully about this here.)
Get your own coach/mentor. You serve that role for your team members, because guidance, perspective, support, correction and encouragement are needed for top performance. It is just as true for you as it is for your team. In fact, when you are getting coaching you will be a better coach yourself. Whether the coach is your boss, a colleague, a peer, or an outside resource, you need a coach.
Invest in you. Leaders look for training and learning opportunities for their teams, but you need development too. Don’t put off those opportunities for yourself. Getting the learning you need is an important way of putting on your mask first.
Use your vacation. Some of you (you know who I’m talking to) don’t take your vacation, or never truly disconnect when you do. You need to disconnect, recharge and refresh. Doing this makes you stronger, healthier and fresher. It also brings you the perspective your team needs you to have.
The list is longer, and your best answers will come from your own reflection and introspection. Think about what you need, what your team needs, and what you continually put off. At the intersection of these lists you will likely find your mask moments.
A special thanks to Maria Foran for mentioning this metaphor to me in a workshop a couple weeks ago. Her comment got me thinking about this idea so without her, this post wouldn’t exist. Thanks Maria!