Leadership Presence: Mind Your Red Flags

Red Flags: photo by Rutger van Waveren, flickr.com. Creative Commons

Red Flags: photo by Rutger van Waveren, flickr.com. Creative Commons

“Sometimes I lock the door to keep my partner out so I can just get things done.”

I repeated this phrase back to the impressive young woman leader verbatim, so she could hear for herself what she just said.

“Anything strike you as odd about that?”

“Yeah. That sounds crazy.”

It’s amazing what we justify when it comes to our ambitions. If we’re not careful.

This fabulous young woman had a very clear plan for her career, runs two businesses, mentors, is on a couple of not-for-profit boards, and does not shy away from the limelight.

She is enthusiasm on crack.

She is also me, ten years ago, on the fast train to burnout – and cancer.

Burnout is not attractive. But we like to run fast to its burning edge, testing limits, ignoring our bodies’ cries for relief, reprieve, and rest.

I crashed into the cancer wall as a result, driving myself hard and fast against the rails of my own pressure-filled ambition.

Ever since I’ve had the Red Flag system in place to keep me Zen and the accelerator pedal on ‘easy’.

What is the red flag system?

These are early warning signals that tell me when I’m slipping back in to old habits. When I’m letting my calendar control me instead of the other way around. When I’m letting self-care drop off the top of my priority list to replace it with something like ‘work’ (a disguise for pressure, fear, drive – as opposed to enjoyable work, or sensible service).

My Red Flags include:

1. Meditation avoidance. A great sign I am avoiding more  than meditation. I’m usually avoiding my own inner counsel. Kind of like avoiding calling your mother who will reflect back immediately any issues around self-care (are you healthy? are you working too hard? have you eaten enough? have you been to the doctor?), adding to the self-imposed pressure pile. It’s a catch 22, part of a negative spiral. If I did the meditation, I’d feel calmer, listen to the inner guidance, and be ok with shifting gears to a better pace.

2. Couch time curtailed. If I’m not flopping on the couch with a juicy historical fiction novel, then I know I’m not letting myself enjoy life. At least a few minutes each day. If I’m reading, but it’s all business books, then it still counts as ‘work’.

3. Sunlight deficit. If I haven’t taken a break to go out in the sun, smell some air, have a cup of tea and maybe talk to the chickens, then I know I’ve been letting my work derail my commitment to ‘easy’ and enjoying the process.

If my Red flags Fail me, or rather, I fail to heed the red flags, I need to be mindful of the Alarm Bells.

Alarm Bells

1. Colds and flus. For me, more than one in a year is cause for concern. The year I had cancer, I had EIGHT colds and chest infection. Massive alarm bells. My ears were deaf to it all until too late.

2. Exercise. I’m a committed exerciser. I do 5-9 workouts per week and absolutely love it. If I lose motivation, or miss more than three workouts in a week due to fatigue or waning interest, I know there is something seriously out of balance. Massive intervention required.

3. No days off in a week. Running your own business requires constant thought and attention. Many say, “but I love my business!” And I love my husband. But I don’t want to be around him every second of the day.  Relationships, and work, need space apart to rejuvenate, replenish, recharge. Sometimes I have to wrestle myself away from the computer to get a break. But experience has shown me that a break – especially when I am tired and busy – makes me twice as productive later than if I had just pushed through the fatigue. When in doubt, nap.

Tony Robbins talks about the difference between “Achieving to be happy, and happily achieving.”  I’ve done the ‘achieving to be happy’ thing. It doesn’t work. You work your butt off to get a goal, then another one pops up in its place, just as you climb and summit that massive mountain. No time to celebrate, rest, recuperate – there is always something more.

Happily achieving is about tackling the mountains, and enjoying the view and the company along the way. There will always be more summits, more peaks, more rivers to cross, more valleys to explore. I’d rather do it happy and healthy, than burned out and battered.

What Red Flags and Alarm Bells do YOU need to keep in mind? 

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