To Lead Others, Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Early in my career, I was the first female sales manager at a fast-growing technology company. I was often the only woman in the room of other managers, which put me on a mission to recruit more female team members. Before long, I had several high-performing women on my team, and I was trying to teach them to become our future leaders. 

After they’d experienced success and showed early signs of leadership skills, I would ask them if they had ever considered pursuing management positions. Most of the time, they said no.

I was shocked. Why wouldn’t they want to become leaders in this company? From my perspective, why wouldn't they want to face new challenges and assist others on their path to success? I find this type of work rewarding. But I soon learned that the way I was showing up as a leader was making them reluctant to commit to a leadership position. This made me take a step back and ask myself what I was doing to give a negative impression.

When I took a deeper look, I found I wasn’t taking great care of myself. I was working long hours and definitely burning the candle at both ends between work and staying up too late (i.e., sending emails at 3 a.m. when I couldn't sleep). The members of my team saw the example I was setting very clearly.

From that, my main objective became to walk my talk and create a positive example for my team, especially the women who had the potential to become leaders.

I then decided to focus on balance. I did my research and soon discovered I was performing well in a couple of areas, such as exercise, eating well, and building relationships, but there was definitely room for improvement in other areas, including sleep and self-reflection. I made goals to learn to work smarter (not harder) and spend more time creating balance to give me the stamina to perform better everywhere.

Through this experience, I've developed a few ways leaders and entrepreneurs can achieve balance in all aspects of their lives.

Lead yourself first.

In my experience, if you want to be a great leader, you have to lead yourself first. I often refer to the safety instructions you receive on an airplane: “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” There are reasons for this on the airplane, and I believe there are also reasons to do this in leadership.

If you don’t allow yourself to pay attention to your own life, I believe your team will have a difficult time relating to you because they’d never do what you're doing. You’ve become a person who is operating at an unattainable or undesirable level. And, in my opinion, you might even lose their respect by never leading yourself.

There are three steps you can take to ensure you are doing a good job leading yourself:

  1. Prioritize. Work on your three most important goals consistently, and let your team see you doing it. In my experience, this standard will encourage them to do the same and move the needle on what matters most.

  2. Live a work-life balance. Manage your time well, and continue to hone your skills on working smarter. For example, let yourself take a vacation. Spend a few hours at your kid's soccer game. Take your team members out to lunch occasionally, and make time to connect. By allowing time for your own life outside of work, you can show your team it's OK for them to have lives, too.

  3. Work within the expectations you have for your team. For instance, wait to send that email at 8 a.m. instead of in the middle of the night. If your team sees you sending emails at that time, it might inadvertently make them feel like they need to be available 24 hours a day.

As you develop into the best leader you can be, I've found that it’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others. I've observed that some leaders compare themselves to others on social media. So remember, you aren't necessarily seeing what is going on behind the scenes. Be authentic, and lead your way. For example, when I tried to emulate some of my bosses' tactics, they were initially rejected by my team because they weren't tactics that aligned with my leadership style. Instead, give yourself time to self-reflect, and solicit regular feedback from your team to help you continue to hone your leadership stance.

Don’t run the race alone.

When Lady Gaga won an Academy Award at the Oscars in February, she expressed the importance of picking yourself back up when you fall down and never, ever giving up. I think about that a lot. There are times I’ve definitely picked myself back up and kept on moving; there are other moments I allowed myself to get run over.

This race doesn’t have to be run solo, and I believe asking for help along the way is the smart thing to do. As a leader, you don’t want to be racing so hard that you feel as if you’re going to drop to the ground. Lead in a way that is sustainable.

To help you get there, think about who else can help you on your leadership journey. Shrug off the “I can handle it myself” mentality, and instead lean on other colleagues or people in the organization you can trust. Look for people or groups outside your workplace. In my opinion, having a strong support system to share your goals with and get feedback from is critical to your success.

Invest in yourself today so that you can show up authentic and inspiring in the eyes of your team tomorrow. Conveying a version of leadership that’s inspiring and motivating can encourage others to follow in your footsteps, rather than illustrating a path they want to avoid at all costs. So put on your own oxygen mask first. Take care of yourself, and in turn, take care of your team.