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Why Well-Being Is Foundational to Leading at Your Best

A new study suggests why it’s vital to prioritize leaders’ well-being.

Key points

  • When leaders maximize their well-being, they lead at their best and make a positive impact.
  • The results of a recent study highlight a striking disparity between thriving and burned-out executives.
  • Leaders can start with three strategies to connect the dots between leadership and well-being.

There is currently a disconnect between the demand to improve workforce well-being and the progress being made.

Unfortunately, workforce burnout is rising, and well-being is worsening. Specifically, according to Deloitte’s Well-being at Work 2023 survey, employee and leader well-being declined last year, and around 50% of employees and leaders are detrimentally impacted by workplace burnout. Symptoms include poor mental health, exhaustion, stress, and overwhelm.

Simultaneously, the demand for workforce well-being has been increasing for the past four years since the pandemic. And the majority of workers are taking a stand for their well-being: 60% of employees, 64% of managers, and 75% of executives are seriously considering quitting for a job that would better support their well-being, an increase from the prior year (Deloitte, 2023).

What’s contributing to this disconnect?

Based on my decade-plus of experience and research as a public company CEO coach and positive organizational psychologist, the key factor to making progress on workforce well-being is to prioritize the leaders’ own well-being. Wellbeing is broadly defined as human flourishing and wellness of mind and body (Diener et al., 2009).

However, this crucial factor is often overlooked. I frequently hear the misperception that leaders view meeting the demands of leadership as separate from their well-being. Leaders consider workforce well-being, which is commonly approached as a separate initiative or program, as a nice-to-have employee perk that doesn’t apply to them. Furthermore, leaders and executives are expected to lead efforts to improve workforce well-being and ensure that employees thrive, regardless of their own well-being.

In truth, when leaders maximize their well-being by serving themselves first, they lead at their best and positively impact themselves, their team, and their organization.

In a recent study, I interviewed 20 Fortune 1,000 CEOs to understand what leadership performance looks like when executives are thriving and when they are burned out. The results highlight a striking disparity that applies to all leaders.

On one end of the spectrum, I discovered that thriving CEOs create the highest leadership capacity, improve team performance, and help organizations thrive. Thriving CEOs consistently create positive and inclusive environments, energize and encourage others, make clear decisions, are visionary leaders, and retain the enthusiasm and mental agility to excel in their roles.

On the other end of the spectrum, I uncovered the damaging impacts of CEO burnout. CEO burnout is not only harmful to the individual; it is destructive to their teams and organizations. Burned-out CEOs consistently operate with reduced productivity, become closed off, create a negative environment, lack focus for decision-making, and act narrow-mindedly.

Additionally, the exhausting nature of everyday leadership adds pressure to overloaded executives. The results show leaders must routinely exhibit depleting behaviors, including repressing or deferring their own needs, acting in ways that do not necessarily reflect how they feel, and using their own energy to boost others.

These results highlight the high costs of leaders' disconnect from their well-being and what’s possible when leaders connect the dots between the two.

I hear from clients repeatedly that they want to build their visionary leadership capabilities. While this is an essential part of leadership, leaders must start by caring for themselves and cultivating their well-being to have the energy to expand their abilities to inspire.

Consider the metaphor of building a house: It’s the house’s strong foundation that supports the entire house and carries the weight. Without it, the house is prone to damage, and when it’s not addressed long-term, the house could crumble or sink.

When applied to leaders, those with a strong foundation of well-being not only have the stamina to meet the demands of their role, but they lead at their peak performance. As a result, they ultimately have an abundance of energy to inspire, energize, and motivate others positively. Those who don’t are more susceptible to burnout, which, as the study’s results illustrate, negatively impacts their leadership. Over time, from my experience, they are more likely to be crushed by the weight of the pressure.

Three Strategies to Connect the Dots Between Leadership and Well-being

1. Change your mindset

First, shift your awareness to reprioritize yourself and your well-being. Acknowledge that you won’t operate at your highest capacity without first focusing on your well-being. Embrace this mindset: Well-being is foundational to peak leadership performance.

2. Connect to your purpose

Envision what’s possible if you reach your full leadership potential. Check-in with your best self, focusing on the long-term big picture. Consider how to cultivate your well-being to lead at your best. Reflection: What’s important about taking care of my whole self?

3. Replenish your energy through "vital leadership"

Leaders have a lot of energy going out into the world. But what about energy going in? Through my research, I discovered vital leadership provides a foundation of energy resources for leaders to lead at their full capacity. By prioritizing your well-being, you build your vitality, giving you an abundance of energy.

With vital leadership, leaders can learn how to replenish their energy to have the inner physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual resources to deliver on the outputs. This is an individual experience. It is up to you to determine what energizes you every day.

Reflection Questions:

  • What brings you physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual energy? Brainstorm to create a list, including things you are currently doing, used to do, or want to try.
  • How could you integrate what gives you energy into your life more consistently?
  • What’s one action you could take to refill your energy today?

What’s possible when leaders connect the dots between leadership and well-being?

What’s possible is that leaders thrive. They show up and lead as their best selves, creating a positive ripple effect throughout their team, organization, and communities. When leaders thrive, it creates an environment where employees can thrive, too.

Ultimately, when leaders embrace well-being as foundational to leadership, it transforms their leadership and lives. If we want leaders to lead at their highest capacity and have the greatest impact, then we must start including well-being in how we approach leadership.


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