Reflections on leadership, self-care, and building humane systems

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare

Audre Lorde
View of the ocean from a cliff on a sunny day with blue skies. Two boats are in the water and an island is visible in the distance. The view is framed with trees.
Dinner Bay, Mayne Island

Three weeks ago my family and I spent three days on the gorgeous Southern Gulf Islands. Even a few hours into the trip I began to experience a palpable unpeeling of tension, a distancing from tasks, a delayering of noise and news, and a recentering of spirit and self-care. It brought into relief just how much cognitive and task overload I have regretfully become accustomed to and how much I have been risking burnout. This is something I haven’t paid sufficient attention to despite several caring colleagues (including some from HR!) directly expressing their worry about my well-being.

This realization made me reflect on several things, including the behaviours I occasionally encounter at work but that disproportionately drain me (politicization, Machiavellianism, and cruelty) as well as the elements of my practice that truly energize me (making the lives of faculty and students better and watching colleagues flourish). It also led me to begin to make small but effective changes so that I can shift from my repeated and failed attempts at achieving a vaguely “better work-life balance” towards setting some concrete boundaries and implementing specific strategies that support my desired life-work harmony (I will gladly share some of these in a future post).

Now that I am midway through what feels like a relatively luxurious 2 week vacation (something else I have felt unable to schedule for far too long) I have disconnected entirely from all work (no email/messages/notifications, made possible thanks to my wonderful colleagues) and am regarding with curiosity and interest the thoughts that naturally enter my mind as I enjoy a break from my usual endless schedule of meetings, emails, planning, tasks, overtime, and more overtime.

Interestingly, over the first few days I experienced rather a cascade of new thoughts, ideas, and inspiration about what I could do to work with my colleagues to further improve many of the small but meaningful aspects of our work lives. So although I was clearly still thinking about work (that is, when not playing with my kids, reading, binge watching, playing tennis or music, or napping), it was about people instead of projects. This observation makes me wonder how much more caring and effective leaders would be if they weren’t routinely worked into the ground; if we were permitted the mental space that affords one’s best thinking. As someone who looks to build healthy systems and communities I recognize that burning myself out in pursuit of a noble goal is neither something I should model nor something that will allow me to see my work though. In short I cannot be an effective caregiver if I do not also look after myself.

One of the reasons for some recent overwork has been short staffing and a personal determination that this shouldn’t have a negative human impact (on others, anyway), especially when it comes to students. But adopting a “buck stops with me” approach only works if you have the support to also occasionally say “deal me out,” if only for a hand or two. This is also tied to the root cause of roles sometimes carrying too many responsibilities (whether at an individual or unit level). This in turn leaves too little room for expected unexpected events to occur (the “known unknowns”). As my team’s leader I am able to address this in a several ways, including analyzing our activities to pull back from any high effort/low impact initiatives, to err on the side of doing fewer things better, and to ensure that our strategic planning adopts a human-centered approach. And while I will continue to advocate for my team and for the resources we need to do what is expected of us, it is important to recognize that individual or even unit efforts are not necessarily effective or enduring solutions to systemic challenges.

I am immensely proud of my team. I am also protective of them and the culture that we have worked hard to build and sustain. I have seen these efforts pay dividends as our department now enjoys a reputation across our university for not just doing good and vital work but also being values-driven, caring, and collaborative. This in turn has meant that colleagues across our university increasingly want to work with us (and when the opportunity arises, within our team). And while this is heartening and vindicates our approach, it is also a reminder of how powerfully a team can be shaped by its norms and the culture it is designed to uphold. After all, poor leadership doesn’t just break up a team (e.g., through resignations and early retirements). It also breaks a team’s spirit and can leave lasting scars. So while the process of culture change is often described as a long game (especially in academia where traditions die hard and where cruelty is often paraded as rigour), success will require changing the rules so that care (including self-care) isn’t just performative cheerleading from the sidelines but guides every aspect of our work, both within and outside of the classroom.

Self-love is the foundation of our loving practice. Without it our other efforts to love fail. Giving ourselves love we provide our inner being with the opportunity to have the unconditional love we may have always longed to receive from someone else

bell hooks
A view of the ocean from a rocky shore on a sunny day with blue skies, with an island across an inlet and the mainland faintly visible in the distance.
Lighthouse Point, Mayne Island

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