Leading is Challenging
Many of us romanticize leadership. When we hear that a friend or acquaintance is a leader, manager, or director at their company, we often think of them as having influence, prestige, and money. We think of them as feeling accomplished and happy with their work. Their stories, however, tend to be more complex than this narrative. For example, recent survey data show that most leaders feel exhausted and unengaged at work.
Leadership is hard work because leaders are pulled in many different directions—they have to manage the day-to-day tasks of their followers, while caring for their individual needs. For example, if a team member takes a sick day and misses work, their leader needs to reorganize the team's work, while empathizing with the sick team member. Dealing with such issues on top of other role responsibilities, such as budgeting, strategizing, and project management, takes time and energy.
As a business professor, I know that many of my MBA students aspire to achieve leadership roles. For that reason, we spend quite a bit of time discussing the burdens of leadership in class. We also discuss research-backed tools that my students can use to thrive as leaders. I would like to share some of these tools with you too.
My colleagues and I have developed two simple tools that leaders can use to feel energized and to be effective at work. The first tool—what we call positive leader self-reflection—entails taking a few minutes in the morning to think and write about three qualities, achievements, or skills that you believe make you a good leader. Try it out yourself—take a minute or two to think and write about these qualities.
Positive Leader Self-Reflection
My colleagues and I tested the effects of positive leader self-reflection on leaders' energy and performance. In the first study, we surveyed leaders from various organizations multiple times a day for 10 workdays. We asked how these leaders felt on days when they took a few minutes before they started their workday to write about their positive leadership qualities. We found that, on days when leaders took a few minutes in the morning to reflect on qualities that made them good leaders, they reported feeling more energized at work, and felt they had a positive impact on the work of others too. These effects lasted until the evening at home.
In the second study, using the same approach with another group of leaders, we found that on days when leaders completed this same tool, they felt more leaderlike, made more progress on their work goals, and consequently, felt better about themselves. That is, when we surveyed these leaders in the evening at home, they reported experiencing higher self-esteem from work, feeling more relaxed, and experiencing more meaning in life. Both studies show that taking a few minutes in the morning to reframe your day by focusing on your positive leadership qualities may help you thrive at work.
Leader Role Self-Compassion
The second tool that leaders can use to be more effective at work is to embrace a mindset of self-compassion. Self-compassion is an attitude whereby you choose to treat yourself as you would treat a good friend. Often, the self-talk that we use when we struggle at work or in life tends to be harsh and unforgiving. We would not dare say the same things to a friend who is struggling with similar issues. Therefore, as other studies have shown, self-compassion may be beneficial for one's well-being and performance, and we wanted to extend these findings to leaders in organizational settings.
So, we tested this second tool—what we call leader role self-compassion—in another study with leaders across a variety of professions and organizations. In this study, we asked leaders to reflect on struggles that they faced in their roles as leaders, but with a mindset of self-compassion, showing themselves kindness and tenderness. We found that on days when leaders reflected on their role challenges with self-compassion, they felt more leaderlike, and consequently they helped their coworkers more often with both work and personal problems. In turn, their coworkers rated these self-compassionate leaders as more competent and kinder that day at work. This study shows that self-care at work spills over to caring for others as well.
Best Possible Leader Self
Although most of my research focuses on developing tools that help leaders thrive at work, employees in other organizational roles may benefit from similar tools too. For example, in a recent study, my colleagues and I studied professional employees who were interested in leadership. We found that taking a few minutes in the morning to reflect on their best possible leader self—who these employees aspire to be as leaders in their future—put them in a better mood, rendering them more helpful toward coworkers and more likely to act in leaderlike ways that day at work.
For Further Reading
Jennings, R.E., Lanaj, K., & Kim, Y.J. 2022. Self-compassion at work: A self-regulation perspective on its beneficial effects for work performance and wellbeing. Personnel Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/peps.12504
Jennings, R.E., Lanaj, K., Koopman, J., & McNamara, G. 2022. Reflecting on one's best possible self as a leader: Implications for professional employees at work. Personnel Psychology, 75(1), 69–90. https://doi.org/10.1111/peps.12447
Lanaj, K., Foulk, T. A., & Erez, A. 2019. Energizing leaders via self-reflection: A within-person field experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(1): 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000350
Lanaj, K., Jennings, R.E., Ashford, S. J., & Krishnan, S. 2022. When leader self-care begets other care: Leader role self-compassion and helping at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 107(9), 1543–1560. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000957
Klodiana Lanaj is the Martin L. Schaffel professor of management in the Warrington College of Business at University of Florida. Her research focuses on better understanding mindsets and behaviors that enable leaders to be successful at work and to experience well-being both at work and at home.