If you don’t love yourself you cannot love others. 

If you have no compassion for yourself,

then you are not able to develop compassion for others!

                                                                                                                                            – The Dalai Lama

For the past week I’ve been reading and having discussions with friends regarding the importance of empathy as a trait of effective leadership.  There is no shortage of research that supports the idea that leaders who establish organizational cultures which embrace empathy and create work environments that serve to enhance engagement, foster productivity and improve the organization’s “ bottom-line”. Servant leaders create these cultures.  They are profoundly aware of the needs of both their employees and clients and lead in a manner that puts others first.  But there is an important question that needs to be asked, “Who is caring for the caretaker?”  Today’s fact paced, demanding, and ever changing work environment demands that all leaders (and I do think of all of you as a leader) exhibit not only empathy, but a little self-compassion and self-care.

Kristen Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas and author of “Self-Compassion:  The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself” proposes that having compassion for oneself is really no different from having compassion for others.  When we feel compassion for another it means we recognize that suffering, failure and imperfection is part of a shared human experience.  Self-compassion involves acting the same way toward yourself when you are having a difficult time or notice something you don’t like about your performance or self.  Instead of “sucking it up and moving on” or “keeping a stiff upper lip”, you stop and tell yourself, “This is really difficult right now”.  You then ask, “ How can I comfort and care for myself right now?”  Neff states that it is important to remember that we were never supposed to be perfect and that having compassion for ourselves means we honor and accept our humanness.  She also reminds us that it is equally important to remember that self-compassion is not self-pity or self-indulgence.  Neff identifies three elements associated with self compassion:

1 Self-Kindness – entails being warm and understanding toward ourself when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate.  Self-compassionate people recognize that coming up short, failing and experiencing difficulty are part of the human experience, so they tend to be gentler with themselves when confronted with painful experiences that often make others angry or hostile.  They recognize that people don’t always get what they want.  When the reality is accepted, greater emotional composure becomes evident.

2 A Sense of Common Humanity – Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational sense of “I”, as if we are the only one who ever make a mistake.  Being human means being mortal, vulnerable and imperfect.  Therefore self-compassion recognizes that failure, suffering and personal inadequacy is part of a shared human experience.

3 Mindfulness – is a non-judgmental receptive mind state in which we observe our thoughts and feelings as they are without trying to suppress or deny them.  Being mindful requires that we not over-identify with these thoughts and feelings and get swept away by negative reactivity.

So what about you?  Neff provides us with an on-line instrument to assess our own level of self-compassion.  It takes no more than five minutes to complete and I found it fairly accurate, as my score revealed me to be moderately self-compassionate.  What’s that old proverb? “Physician, heal thyself!”

Annie McKee, a senior fellow at Penn’s Graduate School of Eduction and Director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program and Kandi Wiens, a program faculty member also address the issue of self-compassion in their HBR post, “Prevent Burnout by Making Compassion a Habit”.  “Stress”, they share, is a happiness killer, and stress is on the rise.  Why?  The uncertainty in the world, never-ending organizational changes, work/life imbalance to say nothing of work environments that sometimes border on toxic.  What happens?  Our health suffers, we become irritable, our performance and well-being are compromised and burnout is right around the corner!   The answer?  It lies, in part, with empathy.  When we engage in empathy we seek to understand people’s needs, desires and points of view.  Empathy requires us to feel and express genuine concern for their well being and then act on it.  McKee and Wiens’ research offers a two-part strategy that can help unleash empathy and break the burnout cycle. First, and most important we need to practice self-compassion!  We need to stop being the hero for everyone else and apply a little self-care.  We need to (1) seek to understand ourselves and what we are experiencing emotionally, physically and intellectually at work (2) care for ourselves as opposed to shutting down; and (3) acting to help ourselves.  Two simple ways to begin are:

• Curb the urge to overwork – Remember, overworking is a trap, not a solution.  Overworking often results in the production of greater stress, isolation and sometimes serves to make things worse.  Instead find ways to renew yourself.  Exercise, practice mindfulness, spend more time with family and loved ones and get more sleep.

• Stop beating yourself up – Stress is often the result of being too hard on ourselves when we fail or don’t meet an expectation.  Instead of letting self-criticism create stress, acknowledge how you feel, and recognize that most others would feel the same (given similar circumstances), and forgive yourself.

Its important to remember that it isn’t until you commit to caring about yourself that you can start to care about others. The problem for most leaders becomes that precious commodity of time.  I’ve heard a leader state, “With everything else I have to do, the last thing I have time for is me!”  So how about if we weave self-compassion (care) into the workday?

“Self-care is no longer a luxury, it’s a part of the job!”  Amy Jen Su lets that quote from a client begin her HBR post, “ 6 Ways to Weave Self-Care Into Your Workday  Su, an author and managing partner of an executive coaching firm shares that incorporating self-care into our work life, as a key component of overall performance, is critical.  She begins by broadly defining self-care as more than attending to our physical health.  It means paying attention to a wider set of criteria, including care of the mind, emotions, relationships, environment, time and resources.   She adds that the intention is not to add more to our plate, rather self-care can be  woven into the course of the day.  She then proposes some ideas that each of us can incorporate (in our own way) into our daily schedule:

• Cut yourself a break – We are often our own harshest critic.  When perfectionism kicks in ask, “What would I say to a colleague or friend in the same situation?”  Why treat yourself with any less compassion that you would someone close to you?  By keeping the internal critic at bay we create a psychological condition that enables us to accelerate through the tough times.

• Value time, money and resources – On any given day, others will ask for our time which will have the impact of distracting us from our priorities.  With this in mind, allocate fifteen minutes each morning to identify your priorities for the day.  Then, when others request some of your time, you can consider the impact on your priorities prior to giving what had been, the automatic “yes” nod.

• Take a victory lap – What did you accomplish last week?  What projects have you completed and put behind?  Take a moment, hit the pause button and look back.  What did you and your team do well?  What felt particularly satisfying.  Reflection helps us stay connected to passions, contributions, and actions that add value to what we are doing now.

• Surround yourself with good people – Healthy and supportive relationships are a critical part of self-care.  Take notice of who feeds your energy and who drains it (Set boundaries with the drainers).  Invest in those who inspire you and are supportive.  The same is true outside of work.  And don’t neglect the most important people in your life.  Use breaks during the day or commuting time to call friends and loved ones for an energy boost.

• Update your workspace – Clean up the desk, declutter, move pictures of people or images that inspire you into eyesight.  Your workspace should feel like a reflection of your best self.

• Recharge and reboot – Stay attuned to your energy level.  Shoot for eight hours of sleep a night. If it isn’t possible, designate a Wednesday or Thursday night as your “catch-up” night.  Likewise build restoration breaks into the day.  A walking meeting or a period of mindfulness or meditation over lunch. Traveling?  How about getting a chair massage while waiting for that flight?

As our lives get busier self-compassion and self-care will become an even more important part of being authentic and having positive impact without sacrificing our health or relationships.  Remember, we cannot be servant leaders if we neglect the person that others look to for leadership.

Embrace the Challenge!