What Makes a Great Leader: Self-Care

The next element of a Great Leader in this blog series is Self-care. Self-Care is about balancing emotional and physical stressors in life with healthy behaviors such as exercising, eating nutritious foods, getting enough sleep, relaxing, practicing mindfulness, abstaining from substance abuse, and pursuing creative outlets. Self-care also includes fostering beneficial and meaningful relationships with others, steering away from exhaustion, reducing our distress by forcing calm, and then listening to what our bodies are telling us about our needs as individuals and human beings.

With adequate self-care, we become healthy individuals, translating into healthy leaders who lead teams that foster positivity with increased performance at work as a by-product. Ultimately, we should strive to reach something the Ancient Greeks called Eudaimonia which is translated directly to ‘happiness’ or ‘welfare’. However, more accurate translations have been proposed to be ‘human flourishing, prosperity’, and ‘blessedness’.

Self-Care from Work/Life Balance

An important aspect affecting the quality of self-care is work/life balance. More time spent doing work means less time spent on ourselves and taking care of ourselves. Recently, there has been a shift by organizations and researchers focusing on the importance of work/life balance as when this is in equilibrium, it has shown to improve employee wellbeing, loyalty, and productivity.

Failing to maintain a work/life balance, results in physical and emotional stress, reducing our capacity to be creative and productive. Besides managing your own self-care, organizations can influence employee self-care by leveraging work/life balance. This is done by limiting workload, introducing appropriate supervision, providing adequate employee benefits, and allowing developmental opportunities. Leaders of today must be able to effectively balance work and life obligations.

How to Find Balance for Self-Care?

While it is important to improve emotional and physical health, it may also impede career progression if the balance tips too much in the favor of life and fun. This presents a dilemma for leaders as they then also require sufficient self-discipline to balance self-care. One could also argue that good self-discipline is also self-care. This dilemma may be easier navigated when you know yourself well enough to understand what you truly need at the moment and what you need to be happy. To reach this point, one needs to practice self-love.

Self-love is having respect for one’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. The tenets of self-love are self-knowledge; living in the present; spirituality; clarity of intention; and non-judgment of the self and interconnectedness between the individual and the world. Practicing these tenets will improve your self-love which will in turn strengthen your ability to self-care appropriately. When you love yourself, it is easier to care for yourself. Furthermore, self-love will provide other beneficial leadership traits such as confidence and optimism that encourage employee engagement.

Balance for Self Care
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What Improves Self-Care?

Working Smart Rather Than Working Hard

Adapting smart methods of working has shown to improve productivity and performance in some industries. This practice is reinforced by a team and management believing in the same principle. Working smart is only truly possible in the work environment if the leader creates it by empowerment and support of followers. Unfortunately, some organizations do not understand the difference between working hard and working smart, even though working smart delivers more results. If this culture cannot be changed, it is recommended that a new employer be found where a working smart culture is embraced. Otherwise, it will be extremely difficult to practice self-care and implement a work/life balance.

Staying Healthy – Fitness, Balanced Diet, Getting Enough Sleep

There is a vast amount of literature supporting exercise as a contributor to improved self-esteem, happiness, and wellbeing. Furthermore, resting enough with quality 8 hours of sleep every night and eating correctly also improves your health. These are basic requirements for a healthy mind and body yet we often forget this. Self-care starts with these basics.

Excercise and healthy activity improving Self Care
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A High Internal Locus of Control

As mentioned in a previous blog post, locus of control is about how much control we believe we have over the future. Leaders with a high internal locus of control believe they are fully in control of their future and their actions directly impact this. A high internal locus of control acts as an enabler for self-care. By believing you are fully in control of your future, you may realize that work/life balance is your choice. It then becomes easier to implement self-care once you adopt this attitude.

Other enablers of self-care include personal hobbies, self-forgiveness and personal reflection.

What Prevents Self-Care?

Being too hard on yourself

A high internal locus of control means you will likely take accountability for your own actions and results. Unfortunately, taking full responsibility for our future may also cause us to take our mistakes and problems personally and see them as a personal failure. We may be too hard on ourselves and tend towards harsh self-criticism.

Part of emotional maturity (also part of this blog series) is also the need to tame our internal monologue and our emotions. We must be able to “self-soothe” and being unable to do so may be emotionally and psychologically damaging. Self-care is not just about looking after ourselves physically but also emotionally. We need to remain mindful of our thought processes to stop ourselves from delivering harsh self-criticism.

Harsh self-criticism, preventing Self Care


We are all familiar with the need for the company of other people. Relationships and connecting with other people prevents us from strolling into loneliness, where we forget that others share our humanity – happiness, and pain. However, not everyone has the need for company. Some people may label themselves as introverts and prefer isolation.

While we should respect this wish, as introverts genuinely need alone time, we need to keep in mind that relationships and belongingness are a key part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Isolation is required in moderation when our goal is independence, but this is not the solution when going through hard times. If we do so we make the mistake of not reaching out to friends or family for help, nor accept support from others should it present itself. By isolating ourselves from others, we may cause psychological damage. Self-care includes allowing ourselves to rely on others and benefit from relationships.

Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs where belongingness is essential to self-care
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Source: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Other stumbling blocks preventing self-care include poor stress management, not taking breaks, and not living a healthy life.


In our busy lives, we spend so much time and energy chasing goals and caring for others, we may forget to apply self-care. While ambition and compassion are not negative things and are often present in leaders, it is important to seek balance in your life and keep in mind that there is no shame in looking after yourself and attending to your needs. A great leader must obtain balance in their lives between achievement and self-care.

Be sure to check out the other elements of a great leader in The Raven Roost blog series.


Bloom, P. (2015). Work as the contemporary limit of life: Capitalism, the death drive, and the lethal fantasy of “work-life balance.” Organization.

Drew, E., & Murtagh, E. M. (2005). Work/life balance: Senior management champions or laggards? Women in Management Review, 20, 262–278.

Ferris, R. (1988). How organizational love can improve leadership. Organizational Dynamics, 16(4), 41–51.

Heckerson, E. W., & Laser, C. S. (2006). Just breathe! The critical importance of maintaining a work-life balance. Nurse Leader, 4(6), 26–28.

Maharaj, N., & April, K. A. (2013). The power of self-love in the evolution of leadership and employee engagement. Problems and Perspectives in Management, 11(4), 120–132.

Muna, F. a., & Mansour, N. (2009). Balancing work and personal life: the leader as acrobat. Journal of Management Development, 28(2), 121–133.

Quick, J. C., Macik-Frey, M., & Cooper, C. L. (2007). Managerial dimensions of organizational health: The healthy leader at work. Journal of Management Studies, 44(2), 189–205.

Radey, M., & Figley, C. R. (2007). The social psychology of compassion. Clinical Social Work Journal, 35(3), 207–214.

Rapp, A., Ahearne, M., Mathieu, J., & Schillewaert, N. (2006). The impact of knowledge and empowerment on working smart and working hard: The moderating role of experience. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 23(3), 279–293.

Rasmussen, M., & Laumann, K. (2014). The role of exercise during adolescence on adult happiness and mood. Leisure Studies, 33(October), 341–356.

Richards, K. (2013). Self-care is a lifelong journey. Nursing Economics, 31(4), 198–200.

Ryff, C. D. (2014). Self-realisation and meaning making in the face of adversity: a eudaimonic approach to human resilience. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 24(1), 1–12.

Sujan, H., Weitz, B. A., & Sujan, M. (1988). Increasing sales productivity by getting salespeople to work smarter. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 8(2), 9–19.

Zade, T. T., Mahmoodi, M., & Hashemi, L. (2015). Study of the effectiveness of exercise on the self-esteem, happiness and quality of life of young. Trends in Life Sciences, 4(1), 123–129.