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Q&A

Should Leaders Put Themselves First?

Selfish leadership is bad, right? Not according to business adviser and author Kevin Lawrence.

Kevin Lawrence

Why do successful people sometimes crash and burn? Business adviser and author Kevin Lawrence thinks he has the answer — and it’s that leaders aren’t putting themselves first. Lawrence’s leadership theory might not appeal to everyone, but in his new book, “Your Oxygen Mask First,” he shares 17 habits he believes will help leaders become stronger and more resilient. Chief Learning Officer spoke with Lawrence to find out why he thinks selfishness could actually be a good thing.

CLO: Why should leaders put themselves first?

Lawrence: The most important reason is, if they don’t, it’ll end up in a very painful, what I call “predictable surprise.” Either they will stop being able to handle the stress of the additional responsibility they’ve taken on, their performance will wane or they will have a real rude wakeup call — whether it’s health or mental health. There is stress and burnout like we’ve seen recently with Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade — success can get the best of you. Being a leader in a growing company slowly kills you, or it forces you to get stronger. There’s lots of pressures and stress and if you don’t put yourself first and focus on your own strengths, contrary to popular belief, it usually ends very badly.

CLO: What is the myth of martyrdom?

Lawrence: The myth of martyrdom is that you should be a selfless leader and put everyone else’s needs before yours. In the business world, it’s a death sentence. If you put everyone else first, there’s nothing left for you. You’re the backbone that holds it all together. If you’re strong, you can be strong and create a great life and have a great career. But if you play the martyr, like a lot of people are conditioned to do — there’s books about how to do it and everything — the backbone will weaken and crumble and then you will start to implode or not be able to handle it. And again, then your life suffers and your works suffers. I was taught by a great teacher — 20 something years ago — Thomas Leonard. He said that you need to be incredibly selfish but do it from a beautiful place — which is taking phenomenal care of yourself so you can give more to work and you can [put] more into the people that matter to you and your life.

CLO: Your book outlines 17 habits to help high achievers survive and thrive in leadership and life. Which habit would CLOs find most interesting?

Lawrence: Chapter 8: Learn Like Your Life Depends On It. There is a distinction between learning and training. The most committed people will do lots of learning where they’re accountable for their own learning and growth. In the research I’ve found, those people will read, on average, 24 books a year: 12 business and 12 personal. With all the people that I work with, I push them hard to continue to read and learn that way, because the organizations can never do enough for your growth. They can only support it. So the distinction is that for learning, you’re accountable, you do it — versus training, [where] the company is accountable for your growth. And you want to have a pretty strong balance toward the learning environment and learning culture where people are accountable for themselves.

CLO: Which habit do most leaders find most helpful?

Lawrence: Chapter 3: Double Your Resilience. Focus on getting literally twice as strong in terms of your body, your mind and your spirit. In terms of your body, it’s about eating well and exercise and things that make your body stronger. With a weak, unhealthy body, your mind can’t sustain near as well for as long.

For your mind, this is different for everyone. It could be prayer, meditation, writing, gardening. It can be whatever it is that really helps your mind to get in a better place. As people get under high stress and particular, as they get into their mid-thirties, the mind starts to get a bit more scattered and fragmented. If you don’t have specific things that help your mind, it can start to own you. And when your mind owns you, and it’s in control, it’s dangerous. You need some sort of practice to help out.

Then spirit. It could tie into your faith. It could tie into lots of things. But it’s that bubbly, giddy feeling — where there’s things that you do that just light you up inside and make you feel amazing inside. For me, it’s racing cars or being in nature. It doesn’t matter what it is, but it’s one of those things that fill and recharge your soul and make you just sparkly.

Come up with your “resilience rituals.” Specifically, what are the things you do, when do you do them and who do you do them with to help strengthen in those three areas: body, mind and spirit.

CLO: How can CLOs help leaders develop this “you first” mindset?

Lawrence: When it comes to goal-setting end objectives, start to weave the self into the goals. Lots of CLOs at organizations will have corporate goal-setting programs and wellness programs. One organization is calling it your “oxygen mask priority.” What is it you’re going to do for yourself to make yourself stronger? Generally, what happens with most of these leaders is that work will suck up 90 percent of their best energy and then they have 9 or 8 percent that goes to their family and life. And then they take the scraps for themselves, which is not sustainable, and it leads to burnout and all kinds of other issues. To get it into their learning objectives, have people think about the goals of how they’re going to make themselves stronger and more resilient, which would be going into things like resilience rituals. Most important, get people to self-assess.

CLO: You say that most advice to business leaders is complete nonsense. How does your advice differ from the rest?

Lawrence: My advice is written to highly committed, high-performing leaders. It’s not written to leaders in general, though leaders in general can get it. I work with very high-performing CEOs and leaders of fast-growing companies, and it’s different for them. It’s like fitness and nutrition advice for an Olympic athlete versus fitness and nutrition advice for a regular person who likes to work out three times a week. It’s different than what the mainstream would suggest it should be.

Ave Rio is an associate editor at Chief Learning Officer. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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