The Breathless CEO: Tips for stressed out nonprofit leaders

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I am distressed by the increasing number of breathless senior staff leaders that I meet. The breathless leader moves quickly, with fidgety movements, speaking hurriedly and breathing rapidly and shallowly. While this may sound like the onset of a serious health condition, in the work setting it is often interpreted positively as being energetic and proactive, an eager and excited way of working. The fact is that being breathless is definitely not healthy nor is it productive; the breathless leader may indeed be experiencing negative stress and even burnout. If you watch and listen closely to someone who is breathless, you'll discover that they are overwhelmed, too busy, and behind with everything and sleepless at night.

This article is a reflection on the ways that some senior staff leaders are hurting themselves, their boards, their families, their organizations and certainly themselves with the breathless way they work. It is also an encouragement to these leaders to make a few simple changes that will allow them to take a moment to breathe deeply while they do good things for themselves and their organization.

I have vivid memories of lunch meetings that highlight the stress that I experienced as a senior staff. When the lunch was with a friend who was not breathless it seemed that I inhaled my food before the other person was half finished. I had a reputation as a speed eater. If the lunch date was with another senior staff leader, we would both be done eating in record time! Even comments from friends and didn't slow me down; indeed, I continued to not only wolf down every bite, but also miss some meals and eat at crazy times of the day and night. It was no wonder that I was continually feeling unwell.

Everyone experiences stress – the bad kind – in different ways. Luckily, there are many great books and resources to help you. If you are struggling with issues around managing stress, then I encourage you to get help. If you are sensing that you are slipping down the bad stress slope to becoming a breathless senior staff leader, here are four tips that you can integrate into your daily life right away.

1. Stick to your values

Senior staff are generally fearless leaders, wonderful helpers and great guides. As such, they can sometimes give too much of themselves to others. It is easy to get off track by substituting your personal values for those of the organization. While it may be ideal t only accept those work positions that match our values, we also all know that life happens and and values can change over time. Once a year, reassess your values and those of your organization, and see how they fit together. If there are even small clashes of your values with those of a new chair, staff person or volunteers, sort them out before it goes too far. Giving up your values to suit another’s will wear on you and cause unhealthy stress and a breathless approach to work.

2. Trust your board

I hear too often that senior staff do too much for their Boards. It may be that they don't trust their boards to create the board meeting agenda, to write reports or to chair board committees. The breathless leader is sometimes doing these board tasks for reasons of tradition or confusion about the different roles of staff and boards. Sometimes, because the boards are incorrectly perceived as being too busy, too inexperienced or too important to do their own board work, the senior staff person erroneously and breathlessly takes on their tasks. However, it is vital that senior staff and the organization's board of directors work as a team, each with their own separate and different jobs to do. Expecting, encouraging and allowing the board to take up their rightful responsibilities enriches the work of the organization, the board and senior staff.

3. Prioritize your time

Stephen Covey’s advice in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People remains the best reminder that we should “put first things first". Trying to do everything for everyone at once doesn’t help anyone, let alone you! Covey contends that the most successful people are disciplined in giving priority of time and effort to those tasks that are first on the way to the larger goal, not just to those things that are easy or fun or urgent. When we do not prioritize the tasks in our lives, we may end up with the uneasy shadows of unfinished work that leads to breathless stress. When you are sure of your personal as well as your organizational mission, then the first things also become clear. Having the discipline to prioritize your time can lead you to the control of slow breathing.

4. Do your heart a world of good

Track your eating, sleeping, exercise and schedule yourself "me" time at least once a week. Make these a "first things first” priority. Senior staff who try to do everything for everyone usually let everything and everyone take precedence over their own needs. Taking this step is not selfish but rather is a way to ensure you are and stay healthy. The CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Alberta, NWT and NU, Donna Hastings, will tell you that “ if you take care of your heart it will take care of you”. There are eight risk factors for heart disease that you can control – and stress is one of them. Take the confidential Heart and Stroke Foundation risk assessment to determine your personal risk and how to change. Don’t wait until your breathlessness requires a first responder.

The bottom line is that a breathless senior staff leader is both unhealthy and inefficient. Take time to learn what makes you breathless and try one or more of these four steps to return to the long, deep breaths of good health and productivity.

Carol Humphries is a former breathless staff leader and now is with Ideal Consulting Ltd.

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