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Social justice leaders cope with unprecedented levels of stress. You’re racing furiously to seize opportunities, but you’re struggling to raise enough money to keep afloat and partner effectively with others to make progress. On top of everything else you’ve got to do, you now have to calm anxieties (no less your own), raise energy where apathy may be settling in and still provide your organization with a visionary strategic direction so it can play an important role in moving our nation toward achieving our progressive goals. That’s a lot!

So what are you doing to take care of yourself during these stressful times? We ask, because we know that if and how you take care of yourself has a big impact. Not only does taking care of ourselves model in our organizations and our movements the kind of human dignity we hope to foster in the world, it also improves your ability to lead. 

The high price of stress

Self care may seem naïve or unrealistic during these challenging times, but it is now more important than ever. When stress goes unaddressed, it can take a large toll. While you can get work done despite the strain, the quality and quantity of your work – as well as your ability to inspire and motivate – will suffer.

If you haven’t taken the time to step back, see the big picture, and focus, then probably neither will your organization. At the end of the day, you can only give to your organization what you have given to yourself. 

So, for the good of the organization, how’s a busy weighed-down leader going to practice self-care?  Ultimately, self-care is about taking responsibility for and proactively addressing your well-being and stress levels.  

Self care tips

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

Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light: Essays

Identify how you cope with stress and can take care of yourself.

See if your coping strategies are healthy or unhealthy, helpful or unproductive, particularly in your work environment and interactions. Explore healthier ways to manage stress and see which ones work best for you.

Communicate with staff and other supportive individuals.

Sometimes leaders feel they need to know all the answers or at least need to act like they do in order to be strong leaders. However, not acknowledging the reality of the situation will undoubtedly increase the level of stress you feel, while admitting to a difficult situation often leads to a catharsis and greater sense of clarity. While some people may be judgmental about your asking for help, most appreciate being leveled with and invited to express their views, and contribute to a solution especially if it’s regarding things that affect them. Talking to peers internal or external to your network can also provide a safe space for constructive venting and emotional support for organizational leaders.

Get more support from your board.

Since board members are more distanced from daily operations, they can often provide valuable perspectives on the hard choices you have to make. Even disengaged boards often rise to the occasion during difficult times and this might provide you with an opportunity to revitalize board members. It’s important to communicate frankly about the organization’s situation in order to get their assistance, particularly regarding its financial health.

Consider getting external support.

An independent sounding board, such as a consultant or coach, may help you address complex organizational challenges and dynamics, adjust to the current environment, and manage the additional strain. 

Focus on the opportunities.

Remain flexible and open to opportunities and don’t lose sight of them by focusing too much on forces outside your control. The opportunities may include leveraging a new political environment, strengthening core programs, refocusing short-term priorities, or making the organizational changes you’ve wanted to make but haven’t yet.

The justice we seek will not be won overnight. Our best hope for the future is to keep ourselves, our organizations, and our networks sustained, focused and enlivened by vision. Grounded and inspired leadership is essential and that makes proper self care a necessity and not a luxury – especially in these times of rapid change.

For more tips and tools, see our article Tools You Can Use: Finding Opportunity in Challenge.

Banner photo credit: Alison Lin

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