Should leaders sleep with one eye open?

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Recently, whilst watching a nature programme on the television, the camera focused on the leader of a troop of baboons in the African bush.  Snoozing on a branch of a tree in the heat of the midday sun, the baboon was unaware his likely successor was approaching.  The narrator observed “a leader should always sleep with one eye open”.  He implied a leadership challenge was always a strong possibility when one is ‘in charge’.  That got me thinking about a whole bunch of things.

First, leaders can feel the target of challenge from those around us constantly.  Whilst they can feel draining and unwelcome, they can be positive opportunities.  They hold us to account and keep us on our toes.  Challenges can bring in new ideas and energy – we must always be open to that.  So, to be a leader means you should be prepared to be under relentless scrutiny, surrounded by colleagues who all think they could do a better job.  A great question to ask your teams, is ‘what would you do differently?’ – which is a frequently overlooked opportunity.  Be brave and ask.  Sometimes it helps colleagues to learn decision-making, leadership, deal-making, and compromise is not as easy as they might think!  Which in itself is a learning opportunity.

Next, I thought about succession planning and feelings of fear of losing control in the workplace.  The former being an essential task of the leader, and the latter an unhelpful trait.  Leaders must be prepared to leave when the time is right for them and the organisation.  They should have one eye on who they are nurturing to replace them (and when and how), or how they attract or phase-in such a person ready for when the time comes.  They also need to prepare the team and organisation to willingly and warmly welcome such a person into the succession role.  It can be a big wrench for team members.  If this promotes feelings of a lack of control for the leader, then there are likely problems ahead.

Which links to final thoughts around the importance of personal well-being.  Quality sleep is a serious matter and occupation for leaders, it impacts directly on mental and physical health in the short- and longer-terms.  Revel in the thought your frontal cortex (responsible for executive functions such as planning for the future, judgement, decision-making skills, attention span, and inhibition) is having a break, and in the knowledge good sleep is believed to stave off a multitude of lifestyle diseases.  I used to call it ‘work-life balance’, but these days I am more focused on investing-in-self.  By that I mean anything from a long list of: self-development, lifelong learning, career evolution, personal physical health and emotional well-being, time to switch off and relax, and having a broad range of other non-work-related interests.  And just like in parenting, being a good role model is key.  As are good bedtime routines like not working, and not looking at emails, and arranging a quality sleeping environment.  Investment in sleep should be an investment in self.  Confident leaders can sleep with both eyes firmly tight shut.

A version of this blog was first published in Teach Early Years Magazine.

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