Something I’ve noticed about thoughtful leaders is that they often put themselves last. To put yourself first is often seen as selfish, thoughtless and inconsiderate.
In the busy and chaotic working world, we must put ourselves first, to be able to help others. This sounds counterintuitive. However, we need to be able to direct our effort to where it’s needed. If someone else is always running our show, we can’t focus on what matters.
In this article, I’m going to look at why thoughtful leaders struggle to put themselves first. I’ll also look at why it’s so important and the changes you need to make to get it happening.
Why Thoughtful Leaders Often Put Themselves Last
I often coach and receive messages from thoughtful leaders who struggle with this problem. Many have a tendency to focus on others first, and themselves second.
In many ways, this is an admirable quality. Looking out for others is part of what makes people want to work for thoughtful leaders. People know they’ll be looked after, and treated right.
Many thoughtful leaders pride themselves on their empathy, intuition and supportive qualities, and so they should. These are excellent qualities for leadership.
However, it’s these qualities that can also hold you back. You can fall into the trap of focusing so much on the opinions, thoughts and feelings of others that you forget about your own.
This assumes that it’s a zero-sum game. That is, if you put yourself first, you must be putting everyone else last. This isn’t true.
When you put yourself first, you focus your time and effort, you respond instead of react and you safeguard your own wellbeing. This puts you in a fantastic position to support and lead others.
Putting yourself first is only selfish when you continuously do it to achieve your own goals. If you put yourself first to allow you to focus on the needs of others, it’s a different story.
The Benefits of Being Able to Put Yourself First
When you put yourself first, there are many benefits.
Does this mean we become selfish and inconsiderate?
No. It means we set ourselves up to lead and support others more effectively.
When you put yourself first:
- You control the way you focus your time. Instead of running around chasing other people’s priorities, you focus your effort on your own.
- You maintain boundaries. Boundaries are critical to safeguard your wellbeing, and what is important for you. Without maintaining boundaries, others can dictate your priorities.
- You feel better. When you put yourself first you feel better, because you know you aren’t letting yourself down. You feel in control of your leadership and work. You feel satisfied that you aren’t being rolled over by other people.
These simple benefits can make all the difference in your leadership. When you feel in control and positive about your leadership, you’ll do your best work.
Learn More: Wellbeing at Work: How Leaders Can Support It.
Remember: People Aren’t Out to Get You
When I talk about safeguarding your wellbeing and time, it may seem like I’m saying that everyone else is trying to take advantage of you.
It’s important to note that when others try to control your time or set your priorities, they aren’t necessarily being selfish or malicious. Often, it’s because they don’t know what’s going on for you.
Other people don’t necessarily know what your important priorities are. They don’t know your plans or goals. So when they try to get you to focus on what they want, it’s your job to stand up for what matters for you.
Many people would be upset if they knew that you were sacrificing important things to help them, without saying anything. And sometimes you will be able to help others achieve their goals.
But when focusing on other priorities stops you from achieving your own, it’s time to put yourself first.
How to Put Yourself First at Work
Now it’s time to take a look at some strategies you can use to put yourself first at work, to safeguard your wellbeing and control your time.
Try them out, see what works and hopefully you can start to put yourself first, the right way.
1. Understand Your Problem
The best place to start is to work out what your issues are. Here are some possible options.
Maybe you are:
- Working long hours, when you’d rather not be
- Reactively fire-fighting issues, rather than having time to plan and be proactive
- Unable to meet important personal or family commitments because you’re overwhelmed with work
- Focusing on the needs of others, instead of what is best for you and your team
- So busy that you are unavailable to support your people; or
- Feeling like you are doing work that’s not valuable, or that isn’t the way you’d like to be doing it.
There are plenty to choose from here, and you probably have another hundred you could think of. The point is that you need to know where your focus lies.
You can do this by finishing this sentence:
“When I put myself first, it will enable me to…”
Without taking time to understand your key issue, you may take a shotgun approach, where you push back on everything and fight everyone to gain control.
What you really want to ask is “What’s really important about putting myself first?”
Then put your energy into solving that.
2. Choose Your Non-Negotiables
When you have a solid understanding of why you need to put yourself first, it’s time to decide your “non-negotiables”. A non-negotiable is something that is important to you, which you won’t compromise.
It could be leaving work at 5pm twice a week to get to your yoga class. Maybe it’s having a 10-minute coffee break every morning.
Or perhaps it’s sticking to your 1 to 1 meeting appointments with your people.
It’s useful to identify your top non-negotiables that you stick to, and it’s best if you only have a few of them.
If you have a hundred, you’re going to appear rigid, inflexible and unhelpful as you put yourself first in every scenario!
Your non-negotiables are powerful, because these are the points you refuse to compromise on, wherever possible. As it’s a small list, you’ll probably find that people will accommodate them. Especially if you set clear boundaries to safeguard them.
You won’t be able to have it your own way every time. So choose your important situations as your key “battles” and fight those.
3. Put Yourself First By Setting Clear Boundaries
Clear boundaries are essential for putting yourself first. Without them, you let people roll right over you.
As I mentioned earlier in the post, people aren’t necessarily out to get you, but you need to send clear signals so they know what’s important to you, and what you can be flexible about.
Boundaries come in various shapes and sizes. A boundary might be about behaviour that you choose not to accept. Or it might be about important activities that you don’t want to reschedule or cancel.
A boundary is what tells people what is acceptable for you, and what isn’t. This is critical, because people don’t necessarily know unless you show and tell them!
To help you set clear boundaries, follow these tips:
- Stick to them. Try not to give in too easily and compromise the boundary.
- Assume they are acceptable. If something is important to you, don’t run around asking for permission from everybody. Tell people this is what you expect. They can tell you if it won’t work for them, and you can negotiate.
- Be consistent. If you reinforce your boundary one day, and then give in the next, people will be confused. Try to be consistent so everyone understands the rules of the game.
- Don’t be tentative. Some leaders let people know their boundaries, but then they give an easy way out. “I need to leave at 5pm today for my yoga class … but I guess I could stay back if you really need it.” Try to leave the second part of that sentence out!
Boundaries only work when you hold them. If you give in too easily, people think that you don’t really mean it.
Read more about setting boundaries in this post: Setting Boundaries at Work: Why It’s Crucial.
4. Test Your Assumptions
When coaching thoughtful leaders, I often find that they make assumptions that hold them back.
For example, they may assume that incoming work requests need to be actioned immediately, or that their boss understands what their current workload is.
It’s important to test assumptions, rather than just let them be. If someone needs your help, ask when they need it. Propose a date and time that works for you, and see what they say.
Tell your boss what your current priorities are, and ask how her new request ranks with those. Don’t just assume that everybody knows what’s going on for you.
We are conditioned not to question our leaders, so we assume what they say is important. But as a leader yourself, what you think is important too.
5. Think For the Longer Term
Our workplaces are consumed by short-term thinking.
Hit the deadline, even if it burns us all out.
Make the sales target, even if we compromise our standards to do it.
Bend over backwards for the client, even if they treat us like dirt.
It’s time we started thinking about the long-term consequences of our actions. In this case, it’s about failing to put yourself first.
What are the ramifications of failing to put yourself first?
What message does it send to the people around you?
Over the long-term, what happens to you?
These are all great questions to help you cut out the short-term thinking.
Learn More: How Short Term Thinking Leads to Bad Leadership.
6. Monitor Your Vital Signs
Last, but certainly not least, it’s important to check in with yourself from time to time.
How are you showing up each day?
Anxious, stressed, worried, depressed, tired, overwhelmed?
Or cheerful, content, satisfied, energetic, relaxed and at peace?
It’s important to monitor for any changes in your behaviour or mood, just like you’d do with your team. These signals will tell you if you are on top of your issues, or if there is more work to be done.
If you can’t tell, ask someone who knows you well. They’ll notice if you’re acting differently.
Monitoring these aspects may also help you decide what really matters to you. This will help you choose your non-negotiables and set your boundaries.
Then you’ll know when you’re on the right track.
Learning to Put Yourself First Isn’t Easy, But It’s Worth It
Making changes to set boundaries in your work and life is never easy.
It takes persistence, hard work and sometimes, a tough conversation or two.
But imagine what it would be like to feel in control of your situation. To be leading the way you want to, and feeling good when you come to work and go home each day.
Not easy, but worth it. And if you need some help to get there, get in touch and let’s start a conversation.