As a long-time academic, this time of year always feels like the silly season. Is your desk piling up with last-minute requests? Are you on the receiving end of wide-ranging complaints and grievances? Is campus conflict rearing its ugly head? This time of year can unmoor even the most seasoned academic leaders. It’s likely that you have developed some tough-mindedness if you have made it into a leadership role on your campus; however, we each have a saturation point for stress. And even the toughest of us can feel the sting of the emotional burden that comes from managing people and their conflicts.
Not enough doctoral programs teach academic leaders about the importance of self-care, meaning how can you stay personally energized, focused, and balanced, especially when the heat is turned up. As leaders, we are targets for critique whether we like it or not and regardless of the rightness of our actions. Some of the critiques come from external voices, and some from our own inner voice. So how do you respond? How do you bounce back? How do you pick yourself up and keep going? How do you build your personal resiliency as a leader? Here are some self-care strategies that I find useful:
Find a Kindred Spirit
I begin each work week with a phone call with a faraway colleague who is also settling into a new leadership role. We vent and share the things we can’t say on our own campuses. We counsel and support one another through big decisions and self-doubt. Eventually, and maybe most importantly, we end up laughing. Last month, after she relayed the details of a particularly nightmarish week, she asked me, “What do I do?” My advice: “You adjust your crown and keep walking.” Talking with someone who understands and who doesn’t judge helps you mentally reset. My friend is gifted in seeing the humor and constantly reminds me of the absurdity of half of what I describe. By the end of each phone call, we have reframed whatever was bugging us. And we are refreshed from laughing off some of the small stuff.
Get Out of Your Head
If you are analytically oriented, you spend a lot of time in your head. While all this rumination can be productive, constant thinking can detach you from the humans all around you. Before your thoughts take you down another rabbit hole, try to find an alternate target for your mental energy. Better yet, add physical activity as well. In my earlier years when I had fresh legs, I was an avid runner. Running was meditative and exhausting. Now, I walk and purposefully enjoy being outdoors in nature, away from a computer screen. I have friends who knit, paint, walk their dogs, or do anything to move and disrupt their thoughts. Anything that engages our five senses is a powerful source of inspiration and means for stopping our monkey minds. When you come back to the problems and concerns you left behind, you may find that you have a fresh perspective.
“Leave it There.”
At a recent leadership conference, a younger administrator shared that they get caught in loops of their own thinking. They second-guess themself for hours. I shared a phrase that I have adopted over time. When I am overthinking, I consciously decide to “leave it there.” This is my directive to stop chewing over whatever topic is stealing too much of my attention. In the past month, I made a couple of unusual decisions that have been met with varying support. I spent a lot of time hashing over whether I had made the right calls, only to ultimately affirm the choices. But for a few days after receiving pushback, I found my thoughts drifting back to question my decision, until I reminded myself to “leave it there.” If a decision is made with sound rationale, it can sometimes be healthier to just move on.
Take Care of Yourself
Earlier, I shared that physical activity is one way to get out of your head. As I get more experienced, which is a kind way of saying “older,” I am more aware of my limits. High-level leadership roles tax both our mental capacity and physical stamina. To be your best self as a leader and advocate for others, you need to be as healthy as you can. Give yourself permission to sleep, eat, move, and enjoy your favorite people and activities. Can you convert a couple of your meetings each week to walking meetings? Can you block out a few hours on a Friday afternoon to just check out? Do you journal or meet routinely with a friend to whom you can unburden some of the mental load of your work responsibilities? Take vitamins, make smoothies, enjoy naps when you are tired-whatever you need to do to keep yourself well, just do it.
Your action step this month is to pick a strategy – any strategy presented here or one that works for you – and do it once per day or once per week to build a new habit. Putting yourself first enables you to be present to help solve problems and celebrate successes. As a leader, you are committed to your team and to your institution. Commit to yourself as well so that you can keep moving forward. Then, adjust your crown, and keep walking.
Kristine Barnett, Ed.D is a career-long educator and academic administrator who often has a unique perspective on all aspects of academic leadership. Dr. Barnett has cobbled together a career at a variety of institutions that have afforded her several different scenic vistas. For the most part, her leadership has been focused on small, private, liberal arts women’s (or former women’s) colleges. Barnett is new to her position as a Provost/VP of Academic Affairs at an independent liberal arts college in the southeast, affording her a new window and a new view. In her spare time, Barnett works with doctoral students in the Bay Path University EdD in Educational Leadership program.