Your Oxygen Mask First

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If you’ve flown on a plane, you’ve heard this phrase: in an emergency, place the oxygen mask on yourself first, then offer assistance. Why? The simple answer is that you need to take care of yourself before you’ll be able to care for anyone else. You’re no good to anyone if you’re in distress.

Kevin N. Lawrence is the author of Your Oxygen Mask First; 17 Habits to Help High Achievers Survive & Thrive in Leadership & Life. He’s a Vancouver, Canada-based executive coach who says he’s read and tested just about every leadership and management theory published. He wanted to write a leadership book designed to help executives cope with their fast-paced and high pressure lives. He writes, “high-achievers have unique needs that require a distinct way of thinking.”

Along with the highs of success and accomplishment, Lawrence says that leaders also experience the dark side of achievement. “The harsh truth is, leadership can crush people made of steel. You experience moments so intense you seriously wonder if you will make it out alive— much less with your business intact.” If you don’t take care of yourself, he writes, you may not survive your own success.

“If you’re like most leaders, you’re used to planning for achievement— or what I like to call ‘head success’. But this is only half of the equation. Head success is about reaching goals you set like revenue growth, profit, market share, personal wealth, possessions and vacations. If you want a sense of satisfaction, you need to plan for enjoyment and fulfillment— aka ‘heart success.’”

Lawrence offers 17 rules for self-care and success, including “Deal with your emotional junk” and “Take care of your mental health.” One of my favorites is “Stop being the chief problem-solver.” A leader’s job, he says, is to train your team how to think for themselves. “Your ego loves to answer questions and solve problems, but you’re doing yourself and your team a major disservice if this is how you spend your days.” If you’ve ever led a team, you know it’s faster to answer the question and move on than it is to teach someone what they need to know. But if you spend your days answering questions, your team mostly learns that you have all the answers.

And, he says, guess what? Your team probably already knew the answer anyway. They just check in so they can feel more secure. They are afraid of getting it wrong, or of disappointing you. Your job is to transfer that feeling of security away from you. Empower them to think of their own solutions, test them, and gain confidence through experience. Give them an assignment and allow them to figure it out themselves.

This is harder for some of us than others. Giving up control means, well, giving up control. It’ll get done, but will it get done right? Will it get done the way I would have done it? Ah, there’s the rub. Probably not, at least not at first. Maybe it will be okay anyway. Here’s the interesting part: maybe – just maybe – it will be even a bit better. Innovation, after all, is sometimes just a mistake that somehow worked better than the first time you tried something.

Lawrence’s advice is written in short, easy to digest chapters, and each one offers a slight mind shift that may make you re-think your position on how to take care of business  – and take care of you. Including his tip to “Lick your Toads.” You’re on your own with that one.  Find the book here.


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