Well-Being//

How Learning to Slow Down and Breathe Made Me a Better Leader

I learned that taking a moment for yourself isn't selfish. It's necessary and important to the survival of the whole team.

Getty Images
Getty Images

I became a manager at the ripe old age of 24.

It was a terrible decision, by both me and the hiring manager. I was not ready to truly lead people. The truth of the matter was the company was looking for a cheap way out, so they hired a hard worker with no experience to manage a team of 20 people. My ego got the best of me when I was offered the job and I accepted.

I had no idea how hard it was to manage people, let alone manage them well.

Right away, I was challenged by longtime employees. They were testing me. So I did the only thing I knew how to do: I fought back.

I became the manager of nightmares. I screamed at people. I belittled them in front of their peers. I said no to a number of things based on my personal feelings about the employee. I was unfair. I was unprepared.

I wasn’t happy being a jerk. But I didn’t know how to stop.

I thought by being a tough manager, my life would be easier and people would conform to my ways. Wrong again. Instead, I was constantly in confrontations and conference rooms, fighting instead of communicating. It was a downward spiral.

Luckily, someone noticed my struggle and reached out.

Our regional sales manager invited me to lunch to get to know me better. She was the consummate professional — impeccably dressed, well spoken, and incredibly kind. She was the person I aspired to be.

At lunch, she asked me how my new job was going. That morning, was particularly rough, where I yelled at an employee because they were late to a meeting because they had to talk to the principal at their kid’s school. I felt a little bit bad about the incident, but I didn’t want the regional sales manager to know.

“It’s going great,” I said. Liar.

“Well that’s good to hear,” she replied. “When I first started managing I felt really lost and alone. I felt like no one understood what I was going through. I wish I would have reached out to get advice, but instead, I made a lot of bad mistakes. I could have made it easier on myself if I would have asked for help.”

I could tell she was baiting me, and at that point I was exhausted from the fight. I willingly took the bait.

“Well, to be honest, it’s not always great,” I said.

I proceeded to tell her all my woes, how I thought being hard on people was the only way to gain respect. I talked about the screaming, the door slamming, and a the ways I tried to use fear to manage. She listened until I was done, and then she asked me a question that seem to come out of no where.

“Do you know why they ask you to put your oxygen mask on first when you’re on an airplane?” She asked.

“Um, I’m not sure how that relates to what we’re discussing,” I said, completely confused.

She leaned in. “They tell you that so you can help others.”

Oh.

She continued. “You are working hard, and you need to give yourself a break. A real break that helps to re-energize and refocus your priorities. You desperately need some oxygen. When we prioritize our well-being, we’re better managers. I’m no where near perfect, but I find when I take a second for myself, it’s easier for me to deal with my staff and their needs.”

That lunch lasted two hours, and it still stands as the most important two hours of my professional life.

I went back to the office and shut my door. I thought about what my life had become. I hadn’t taken a vacation in two years. I prided myself on working really late so I could send middle-of-the-night emails. I was relentless with my schedule, always arriving first in the morning, and making sure I was the last to leave.

It was nuts.

I went to my supervisor and asked if we could set up a work plan that would allow some space for me to unplug. To my relief, my supervisor was very supportive.

From that day, my dedication to work-life balance has become a cornerstone of my work as a manager and as an employee. Everyday, I mediate before work for 15 minutes. I leave my desk for lunch. I purposely schedule a yoga class each evening at 6 p.m. so I leave work on time. And I take all my vacation time each year.

Getting comfortable with the notion of free time allowed me to return to my employees and start over. I started by apologizing for being so tough on them, and I started asking them about how they thought they could balance both their work schedule and their personal life. To this day, I ask each employee to propose a schedule that is conducive to both productivity and their mental and physical well-being.

Every time I get on an airplane, I stop what I’m doing just so I can listen to the flight attendant explain the purpose of the oxygen mask. It is a reminder that we must first breathe so we can help others.

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