The Hardest thing you can do.

Despite what you may think—it has nothing to do with that. This isn’t about dealing with the ‘wrong person’ or anything like that.

No, the hardest thing that you can do as a leader is to put yourself first. That’s right. Above all else, putting yourself first.Not the company, not the mission—but strategically yourself first! And that can mean time out!

I think I’ve said it enough times to get the point across, but I can understand if there is some form of conflict or confusion there. After all, why would a leader or anyone in a leadership position put themselves first?

I’ll tell the story in a second, but I want you to ask yourself this question. How good is your team? How good are the people around you? Can they operate without you? If you’re not there for a day or for a few weeks, what happens?

If you find yourself “in the work” as opposed to “on the work”, or worse—constantly in a state of handling minor level tasks, then as a leader some reflection and self-prioritisation comes in.

Many years ago

One thing the Military does quite well is corporate governance and that means systematically and ruthlessly educating and training soldiers on an annual basis about various general topics, such as mental health awareness, workplace health & safety, as well as numerous other subjects including awareness, avoidance and treatment of heat injuries.

Well Australia . . . even in the south can be pretty ruthless when it comes to weather conditions. And when it comes to exercises, time is usually short. So from the higher levels—it’s about maximising the training value in the shortest space of time, particularly when it comes to part time soldiers.

In reality as a part time soldier you can be in the field for about 36 hours before you’re home Sunday night and getting ready to return to the day job Monday morning. But during that time—you’re going to work . . . hard!

This weekend was one of those regular times; fast paced, high sense of urgency, the need to deploy as fast as possible and absolutely under no circumstance wanting to be the last crew to report ready.

But being the second in charge, the job hadn’t allowed for any personal time during the day. Making sure that people were fed, watered and looked after, as well as making sure that other things got done, I had been ignoring that dull throb in the back of my head for about three hours.

I knew the warning signs. My uniform had white crusty salt rings around the pools of sweat. My body was depleted, my water bottles were empty and my body felt like a pile of tinder ready to burst into flames.

Somewhere the clock was ticking. I had to shut down soon, or my body was going to shut down for me!

But reputation was at stake—we had a job to do, “just another 10 minutes and then we can get into the secondary tasks.”

It was close to thirty degrees outside and probably about 40 to 50 under that water tight canvas tarp on the back of the unimog as I reached for another crate of equipment to unload. Each lift caused the back of my head to erupt in pain. I moved a box to the edge of the tailgate as one of the crew took it down into position, before the next guy stood at the back of the truck as asked. “What can I do?”

I felt guilty at even putting myself first, but I remembered back to what one of the senior instructors had told me earlier that year. “You’re no good to anyone if you’re not in the game. You have to put yourself first sometimes.”

He stood there waiting for an answer, as I held my head together hoping it wouldn’t crack open like a melon as the throbbing only started to subside at the brief break in activity.

I said “I’m not joking, I need you to get up here, move those three packs across the other side of the truck, and get me a small packet of plain chips from the goodies box. Can you do that?” I asked.

The guy looked at me like I was pulling his chain before I said to him. “I need the salt mate—I need your help! My head hurts too much to get it, right now.”

It sounded ridiculous, but in a matter of seconds we’d traded places, he was in the back of the truck, I was on the ground with a pathetic bag of chips, almost inhaling them as quickly as I could get them into my mouth, licking the salt off my grubby fingers, as I drained the last water from my camel back.

The Question

Calling time, and giving yourself a moment where you put yourself first can seem selfish, but in some cases it becomes a case of what is the greater issue? Taking yourself out of the game for a moment, or being taken out for a much longer time?

I’ve seen some great workers go flat out till they drop, and when they do the rest of the team, is forced to tread water until they’re back on their feet . . . however long that may be.

In my situation—knowing the warning signs, taking a quick moment to get some fluids and minerals into me, the skull busting throb factor 10 headache, disappeared in a matter of minutes and I was back in the game and working again at near peak performance.

Ask Yourself

So just imagine if taking time out for yourself at the right times meant that you would be a better leader. Working until you drop may seem like setting the ultimate example, but instead it raises other points and some uncomfortable questions?

  1. If you go till you drop, why would your team want to emulate you? Why would they look forward to a position where that is the implied expectation?
  2. Going till you drop in the corporate world realistically translates to stress, burnout or worse, and that means that people around you will probably think you’re unreliable—not the standard you want to set.

Taking time for yourself, shows people around you that you know how to look after yourself and that you can make things sustainable around you. As a leader, your team will follow, and they’ll be better for following your example.

If there is any doubt, think about this . . . there’s a reason you have a lunch break. Strategic time out, is better than constant ineffective output.


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