Why self-care is essential for effective sustainability leadership

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Since this year’s Climate Week, ecological grief or depression has popped up in the news several times. For activists and those who work on environmental, climate and sustainability issues, we might feel angst, grief, anger and/or frustration each time we hear about another climate domino falling. We also may experience these emotions in those moments when we don’t feel our urgency to change laws, business models, structures or processes is heard.

I want to highlight that these feelings are completely normal. As a leadership development and executive coach, what interests me is how we deal with them.

When you experience deep emotions such as angst, grief, anger or frustration, what do you do? Ignore them? If you do, that wouldn’t surprise me. You would be following societal norms because our culture has a narrative around martyrdom, almost celebrating those that sacrifice their mental and physical health for a cause. If we do follow those societal norms, we respond with a flight/fight/freeze response.

In flight/fight/freeze responses, or limbic reactions, cortisol is released into our bloodstream, heart and breathing rates increase, muscles are tensed, our field of vision narrowed to focus on where we believe the danger lies, and we become more alert as we prepare to react.

This type of reaction is great for a few moments in order to (hopefully) ensure our survival for another day. Kept up over an extended period of time this is exhausting emotionally and physically.

This is not to say that all stress is bad. We need stress to grow and strengthen physically, emotionally and mentally. Coming from a flight/fight/freeze response, we act out of fear and anxiety. When under stress, we regress. We fall back to long-ago embodied responses to similar feeling situations. We might even lash out like a cornered animal.

If we are endeavoring to shift our culture and economy from extractive to regenerative, we get in our own way when we operate from a scarcity mindset.

Said differently, when we believe that the only way we can contribute is by constantly depleting our reserves and reacting from a place of fear or anxiety, we’re operating from a scarcity mindset.

When our actions are based in a scarcity mentality, they only serve to reinforce the extractive nature of our culture and economy — and ensure our burning out.

Moving through emotions

The good news is, there is another way. When we take the time for self-care, we end up operating from a place of abundance ourselves because our reserves are full to overflowing. This permits greater resilience during those more challenging moments. This also give ourselves more space to experience and move through those deep emotions such as grief, angst, anger and frustration. This spaciousness allows each of us to give space when your team members and other colleagues are experiencing deep emotions such as these.

Self-care is the intentional engagement in strategies that support your physical, emotional, social, mental and spiritual well-being. We frequently hear about supporting our physical well-being — eat a healthy balanced diet, regularly get a good night’s sleep and get plenty of exercise.

Sometimes a single activity can support or nourish more than one of these elements simultaneously. While getting to the gym regularly is a habit for many, we are not always as good at taking care of ourselves emotionally, mentally or spiritually. Nourishing these aspects could take a variety of forms. It could be spending time with your community, in your religious institution. Or picking up a new practice that nourishes those elements you feel most lacking for you right now. It also could include talking with friends and family, or with colleagues. Alternatively, you could choose to see a counselor, or engage a coach trained in a developmental methodology.

Self-care will enable you to have lower levels of limbic reactivity because you’ll be operating from a place of (regenerative) abundance, not from a place of (extractive) deficit. As a result, you’ll be more resilient with whatever life throws at you. Self-awareness will help you understand how you’re projecting your presence, so you can do so intentionally and consciously, both verbally and non-verbally. Projecting your presence intentionally and consciously will significantly enhance your effectiveness and build trust — essential for team building and stakeholder engagement.

Greater self-awareness also will help you identify when you fall back into old habits that no longer serve. Being able to get yourself back on track will greatly improve your consistency and thus your productivity. When someone is generally content at work, confident in their abilities and has positive relationships with colleagues, they’ll be more productive. It’ll be easier to collaborate with them because they communicate more effectively, perhaps even intentionally. This could be you.

A coach could support you in a couple ways. First, by co-creating (with you) a custom program that supports your development and recommends specific self-care options to support your development. Secondly, by helping you develop your self-awareness and strengthening your leadership presence. Together, these enhance your effectiveness and your productivity.

I leave you with two questions:

  • What would it be like, as environmental, climate and sustainability leaders, to model the change we want to see in the world?
  • What are you doing to support your self-care?
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