How Is Your Self-Leadership? The 4 Pillars of a Leader’s Self-Care

Published on
August 17, 2023

Self-care for leaders can be stripped down to four pillars. I will explain what they are, why each is important, and why I have only four on my list.

I have a mountain of personal experience that has led me toward my self-care model. Through the years, I have been in pastoral leadership settings where I looked after the souls of countless people entrusted to my care. My previous experiences merged when I was on a US Navy vessel deployed to the Middle East. As a Navy Chaplain, I am tasked with looking after the spiritual health and resilience of individuals who are deployed alongside me. Years ago, I learned that while there are general principles of self-care, it is a personal endeavor. My experience as a deployed shipboard chaplain was a lesson in self-care for me.

In my reflections after the crucible of this shipboard deployment, I understood that my self-care boiled down to four pillars. These four elements kept me healthy and centered emotionally and spiritually. By doing effective self-care, I was able to take care of the souls of hundreds of Sailors and Marines. Below I offer you the benefit of my experience. I have lived through the challenges of being a leader charged with the care of others. I’ve done this in the most challenging of places. No matter where you are along your leadership journey, I’m convinced that if you put the following principles into practice, you will reap dividends. You will avoid burnout and be better in your relationships, personally and professionally. You and your organization will reap untold rewards because you have chosen to take the self-leadership path of strategic self-care.

I understand self-care includes more than the four areas I list. There are a variety of stresses on leaders during a deployment (i.e., taking care of the needs of others, extended separation from loved ones, long days, and lack of creature comforts). Deployments tend to strip things down to the essentials. Other things matter; the four things I write about here matter most.

Let’s dive in.

Pillar #1: Spiritual Fitness

Spirituality is a complex topic to write about adequately. In many sectors of society, spirituality has been divested of a divine connection. As I begin this pillar, allow me to make a few points.

  1. My spiritual life holds the central place in my life. It is the first anchor point in my day.
  2. I believe health in our interior world is foundational to the other pillars I discuss here.
  3. With spiritual fitness as the center point, there is a symbiotic relationship among all four pillars.

When I write about spiritual fitness, I have two distinct contexts that are important for you, as the reader, to understand. First, I am a Christian. My understanding of spirituality is framed from a Christian context and my belief in the Christian God. Second, I am a clergyperson who ministers in the military context.

In its essence, spiritual fitness is taking care of our soul; that is, taking care of our inner self (below, we will consider our inner life from the context of our emotions). Ruth Haley Barton lays out a thorough definition of the soul in her book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. She writes that the soul is the most real essence of you that was known before being brought forth in physical form.

The ’you’ exists beyond any role you play, any job you perform, any relationship that seems to define you, or any notoriety or success you have achieved.

Your soul is the real you - and must be tended to.

Spiritual fitness is soul-care by another name. Dallas Willard wrote that,

…soul-care is the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite form or character.

Spiritual fitness should lead to a renewal of self, connection with God, in community with others.

Below are some practices which lead us to deeper levels of spiritual fitness:

  • Solitude and silence - We live in a hyper-connected, busy, and noisy world. In solitude and silence, we are rescued from the relentless human striving and constant demands of leadership
  • Reflective reading - Read, reflect, respond, and rest is a passage of sacred text
  • Mindful prayer - In a meditative moment, we reflect on one word or phrase from our reflective reading.
  • Retreating and disconnecting regularly (perhaps quarterly) - going away to a quiet place removed from the challenges of the leader’s life

My spiritual leadership experience has taught me that personal self-care is essential to my work. And in my profession, spirituality is one of my job duties. During my deployments, it was easy only to practice enough spirituality to do my work. To keep myself centered, I needed to apply spirituality to my personal life. I needed to allow my spiritual practices to shape my interior life and take me to a place that transcended the challenges of the daily care I provided to others.

Leaders of all sorts are no different. All leaders give to others. Leaders who do not stop to practice spiritual fitness are in danger of disconnecting their outer life from their inner life. The soul-care of spiritual fitness is essential to tending our inner self and long-term health.

We’ll consider the inner self again below when we think about emotional fitness.

Let’s turn to the care of our physical selves.

Pillar #2: Physical Fitness

Physical fitness is caring for our physical bodies.

Above, I suggested spiritual fitness was the first anchor point in my day. During any military deployment, the days are long. When a ship is underway, operations run 24/7. Because the days are long, I found it essential to have anchor points in my day. Each moment, I knew another anchor point was coming (i.e., meals, spiritual practices, reading, exercise, naps, meetings). Between these anchor points, I immersed myself in the ship’s life and connected with individuals seeking counsel and care.

During our more than 200 days deployed and being at sea most of those days, physical fitness was a vital anchor point each day. The long days require physical strength and endurance. Most days, exercise came in the mid-morning.

In my work, I take in the pain and stress of other people. I listen and empathize. I care for their souls. My role requires me to keep private the things that are revealed to me. I take in much that is difficult to hear and that I cannot share with others. Physical exercise is an opportunity to find release. For a few minutes, I care only for myself. I prefer solitary exercise (running, biking, rowing, lifting). A fit body helps leaders keep a healthy mind.

There are two other aspects of physical wellness that I focused on while I was deployed: good eating and sound sleep. Eating nutritiously means we take in a balanced diet. We minimize fatty foods and sweets. We eat protein, fresh vegetables, and fresh fruit.

The military is full of people who do not get enough sleep. There are duty requirements, off-duty activities, talking to loved ones back home, noise, and other factors on deployments. Lack of adequate quality sleep leads to physical issues, hurts mental and emotional health, and impacts work performance and relationships.

Adequate quality sleep has a beneficial impact. It improves all of the areas I noted above. As Mahatma Gandi said,

Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the following day, when I wake up, I am reborn.

Sleeping is therapeutic. Sleep is an opportunity to reset and rejuvenate no matter how challenging the day past or tomorrow. On deployment, I looked forward to the night. Going to sleep meant another day was done, and I was another day closer to home.

Leadership is stressful. There are sure to be difficulties leaders must face. Different organizations have different stressors.

Physical fitness gives leaders the strength necessary to navigate the challenges of leadership. Being physically fit increases our capacity for challenges. Not physically fit leaders will not have the endurance for the long term. Leadership is stressful. Being in good physical condition is essential.

Our next pillar is maintaining human connection.

Pillar #3: Relational Fitness

Relational fitness is caring for our social self. It is about our connection with others. By nature, I am an introvert. I need alone time to recharge. Marquis Jones (a fellow chaplain) wrote a doctoral project on maintaining a sense of belonging during deployments. Jones wrote:

Chaplains often engage in emotional conversations, especially during deployment. It is evident that suffering from a lack of belonging would cause an additional burden. At its core, emotional responses are related to a need for belongingness.

The emotional conversations noted by Jones are difficult to navigate. Leaders of all stripes guide challenging conversations. Leadership is often lonely. Connectedness with peers, friend, family, and community increase our sense of belonging and help to lift the emotional burdens of leadership.

Isolation in leadership is dangerous. Leaders need to engage not only as leaders but also simply as humans.

During my deployment, I consistently connected with people in my professional role as a chaplain. I consciously needed to seek connectedness with others as a human being. I needed to connect with peers and friends. I had various connection points. I was in the wardroom (where officers eat) for meals three times each day. I made sure I sat near someone and engaged in conversations. There were various social gatherings I attended as well. I needed to have regular contact with my family back home. All of these connection points kept me from being isolated.

Leaders, you are a human being, not a human doing. If you do not maintain relationships based on being human outside your “leadership doing” role, you will increase the division between your external leadership world and your interior world. The more disconnected these worlds become, the greater the likelihood your leadership will not stand the test of time.

Pillar #4: Emotional Fitness

In this fourth pillar, we circle back to where we began, the leader’s interior life. I researched the connection between soul care and emotional health in my doctoral work. I came away from that research convinced there is a strong connection. Spiritual fitness is at the center, and all four pillars are interconnected. Healthy spiritual, physical, and relational functioning are integral to emotional wellness. Each of the other listed pillars is a part of dealing with the unhealthy aspects of our nature. If we don’t address our harmful elements, they threaten to overwhelm us when life is most challenging.

In the world of a chaplain, the following are markers of emotional health: settled in their spirit, able to offer an unhurried presence when they are attending to others, they are not quick to agitation, demonstrate evidence of a disciplined life, and there is evidence of a holistic self-care model in their life (spiritual, physical, relational, and emotional). Leaders, you might ask yourself questions such as:

  • Are you restless or settled in your mind and spirit?
  • Are you able to be patiently present for people?
  • Are you quick to turmoil in your spirit?
  • Are you disciplined in your life (i.e., is there order and rhythm to your life)?
  • Are you living well into the four practices mentioned above?

Checking in on our emotional health is essential. Unfortunately, leaders often do not do this well. They buy into standard bits of advice: “You cannot trust your feelings,”; “Emotions aren’t always true,”; “Life does not run on feelings,”; “If we let our emotions control us, we would never get anything done.” There is some truth to these ideas. However, Dan Allender and Tremper Longman note that our emotional life is a problem to be resolved and a cry to be heard.

Navigating our emotions is challenging. Still, our emotions point out areas that need to be addressed. Our feelings may point to past experiences, traumas, and painful experiences. Emotionally unhealthy people are ineffective leaders.

Leaders, if you choose not to address your emotional health, you are far more likely to experience a crisis in leadership. Leaders have the potential to impact the lives of many people. These people will be caught up in the wake of your leadership crisis. These people may include professional colleagues, people at all levels of your organization, and your family. Depending on the level of your leadership, lives will be impacted, perhaps forever changed, if you do not address the areas of your life where your emotions are crying out to be heard.

Elsewhere I have written extensively on the importance of leaders doing effective and consistent checks on their emotional health. It is impossible to deal with this topic in a post like this adequately. Many factors could be included in this conversation. Of central importance is the leader’s self-knowledge. Consider these reflection points:

  • What was your level of positive attachment to your primary caregivers during your growing-up years?
  • Burnout is a manifestation of a lack of emotional health. What is your level of burnout?
  • Do you have parts you would prefer to remain hidden? David Benner writes that parts of self that are not acknowledged become more robust, not weaker. When you name them, they lose their power. What hidden parts do you need to address?
  • We are made into who we are, at least partly by the family who made us. Delving into family-of-origin issues is difficult. Many leaders won’t go there. If we don’t go back, we’ll have a hard time going forward. We will continue to live a disconnected life. Do you have family of origin issues that you need to address?

What I have presented in this fourth pillar is not enough. I trust it will give you a starting place to consider the level of your emotional wellness. Talk to someone if you find yourself coming up short as you think about this area. Don’t work the process alone. Reach out and take the hand of those who want to walk beside you and listen to your areas of concern.

Your Turn

Leaders, you face an incredible burden. Wherever you lead, whether at home, in your own business, a religious organization, the military, a non-profit, or a corporation, your fitness level in these four areas will indelibly impact yourself and others in your world. Self-care is self-leadership.

In his book, Leading from the Inside Out, Sam Rima writes that self-leadership is a crucial reason leaders succeed or fail. He notes,

Giving attention to the issues of self-leadership will enable us to build a firm foundation from which we can exercise our leadership.

We as leaders must take special care of ourselves, both our inner and outer worlds, effectively. If we do not, we cannot be effective in long-term leadership.

Leaders, there is hope in your journey toward holistic fitness. Considering your fitness level according to these four pillars, you may understand you need a guide along the way. Find someone who will walk with you toward living your best life—a leadership life filled with joy, not stress and burnout.

I wish you well on your journey toward fitness in your life and leadership.


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