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CEOs often overlook what should be their main priority.

A number of recurring themes have emerged during my years of work with numerous CEOs. A dominant theme has been that these high-flyers need to regenerate energy and vitality as a response to the often-depleting nature of their role.

‘Self-care’ is a good way to encapsulate this topic, and I highly recommend that CEOs bump this up to the top of their priority lists.

The reality of the CEO role is a paradoxical one in that it can simultaneously offer up the very essence of toil and struggle, and, at the same time, the very essence of joy, fulfilment and creative expression. It all depends on which of the two paths a CEO chooses.

In my experience, this enlightenment to the joys and charms of CEO work is often a battle, only won on the back of years of preceding struggle and depletion. Some may believe this struggle to be necessary, but I think many CEOs could happily live without the collateral damage it can wreak on health, marriage and other relationships.

I’ve heard behavior-change referred to something that’s just a few stress or health ‘incidents’ away, meaning: for a person to change their ways, they need to suffer a few bumps and bruises first before the motivation to change appears. While this may be so – and it certainly has played out that way for me and many of my clients – I would like to think that most CEOs have sufficient intelligence, awareness, support and access to resources for these bumps and bruises not to be necessary.

So this article is written as a way of heading these ‘incidents’ off at the pass; of providing a way for CEOs to pay attention to their health and well-being – not only to boost performance but to avoid the devastating effects of ongoing, unremitting stress that could require long periods of recuperation.

I recently had a firsthand experience of the need to change. The ‘client’, in this case, was me.

After spending a week in Mexico City during June, I became considerably ill and was forced to remain in bed for a month. For the first time in my life, I had the choice of whether to work, or not work, taken away from me due to the severity of my illness. There is a silver lining to all this – which is that I have since made deep and profound structural changes in my life – but that no material damage took place to my family or business is a credit to the support base that stepped in at the time.

My own key learning and the changes I have made include:

  • Restructuring the day-to-day responsibilities of my business;
  • Carving out a more conscious, intentional work week and finding my productivity rising incrementally;
  • Sharing my physical state openly with my team, so they could step up and assume greater responsibility;
  • Developing a deeper understanding of both my physical and emotional health, so I’m better equipped to manage any choices I make;
  • Developing a range of in-the-moment ‘life hacks’ that manage the hurdles I am most prone to; and
  • Establishing a meditation practice that is sure to deepen and improve as I refine it over time.

There’s a great deal of meaning in the phrase ‘self-care’. It’s not just about life balance, or exercising, or eating healthily, or looking after yourself in any one way. It’s far more profound than that because the phrase refers, in a direct way, to the need to care for the physical vessel that enables you to do your excellent work.

Being a CEO is tough; we all know that. It is mentally demanding, physically taxing, mostly high-stress and directly impacts on the well-being of others who rely on the wisdom behind your choices. It is both a responsibility and a blessing and should be seen in that way.

While the blessing is a significant payoff, the responsibility requires you to take intentional action and pay keen attention. And that is what I encourage you to create space for, as a core aspect of your CEO offering – the ability to care for yourself.

A relevant example:

Without knowing the full Elon Musk story, it seems clear from his tweets that he’s under immense pressure and isn’t handling it too well. He’s taken on risky and pioneering responsibilities (electric cars and civilian space exploration make a weighty combo!), and it’s no surprise he’s close to capacity in terms of dealing with the strain. Having modelled himself as something of a corporate superhuman, I doubt he’s set up an intentional self-care regime. The potential fallout is lurking.

Key take-outs:

  • Afforded the same level of priority that you afford key clients.
  • Until you take this step, self-care will be relegated to the near-bottom of your priority list and those ‘incidents’ I mention above will start racking up.
  • Self-care requires active steps and the shaping of an offering that includes: planned thinking time; time booked off for rejuvenation only; a deep knowledge of the self, including any weak spots; and breathing or meditation.
  • Your surroundings should enable self-care: your personal assistant needs to be on-board with it; your team should have structured access to you; your direct reports should be firing on all cylinders in their quest to take on more responsibility, and you should talk publicly of your desire to practice self-care, so your messaging becomes clear and your priorities accurate.

Evocative questions:

  1. How far down the list have you ranked your self-care regimen?
  2. What aspects of your surroundings seem to negatively impact your wellbeing? How many more ‘stress warnings’ are you going to ignore, before you make the self-care changes necessary for a sustainable future?

If you would like to chat more about this topic, feel free to reach out to me directly: rowan@lockstep.co.za

Jonathan-Rowan Belchers

Jonathan-Rowan Belchers

“I’m driven by the truth that one remarkable leader can change the fortunes of many. And I’m committed to championing those leaders across all continents.”

With an enduring passion for high performance and exceptional leadership, Jonathan-Rowan has advanced the footprint of Lockstep since founding it in 2006. A graduate of both Harvard and Berkeley and a certified business coach, he has 20+ years in the leadership advisory sector and lectures at a number of foremost business schools. He is an artist at heart – an avid reader, musician and painter.

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