9 Hidden Things That Make or Break Leaders

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So, you’ve noticed something.

Your ability to lead well seems to fluctuate.

Some days (and seasons) you seem to be in top shape. You have energy and enthusiasm, a clear mind and your decision making is sharp.

But on other days (and in other seasons) you’re sluggish, fuzzy, or so burdened down you feel like you can’t lead anything well.

What gives?

What I’ve learned in leadership is that hidden factors are often at work. These hidden factors can help you excel or they can completely work against you.

Knowing what’s at work in the background can be tremendously liberating. Once you realize what’s helping or hurting you, you can deal with it.

So what hidden factors threaten to make or break you as a leader?

Here are nine I’ve identified at work in my leadership. You’ll notice many have to do with a leader’s mind, while a few are more physical. You’ve likely seen them at work in the background of your life and leadership too. Understand them, and you’re ahead. Miss them, and you’re behind (again).

It should be no surprise so many of the factors are in your mind. Leadership, after all, is a mind game.

Work at the mental aspect of leadership and you’ll discover what many leaders have discovered: changing your mind about how you lead, feel and think changes everything.

And while not all 9 are critical issues, wise leaders know these are the factors that make or break them. So they make sure they leverage them to make them, not break them.

Changing your mind about how you lead, feel, and think changes everything. Click To Tweet

1. Weight

Anyone who has led anything remotely significant is familiar with the weight of leadership.

The weight of leadership is the sense of responsibility you carry that goes with your job.

The problem is it never turns off easily.

It follows you home. It accompanies you to bed. It travels with you on vacation.

It’s hard to shake the weight of leadership. You feel it because you are the leader, and you’re likely the leader because you’re the kind of person who feels it.

So what can help lift the weight of leadership? A few things:

Naming it

Doing something fun (the power of distraction)

Prayer

Talking to a friend or mentor who understands

When it’s appropriate, the weight of leadership can spur you toward leading better.  But when it crushes you, all of the benefits of feeling responsible for what you lead disappear.

The weight of leadership never leaves leaders. Wise ones learn how to deal with it. Click To Tweet

2. Pace

Many leaders run hard. But you can only run so hard so long.

For many of you, it’s been too long.

Any leader can run hard for a season, but even if you avoid burnout, eventually it becomes counterproductive to run hard all the time.

Why?

Your mood tanks. Your fatigue rises. Your productivity drops.

And—bottom line—it’s unsustainable.

Smart leaders ask themselves: Am I living in a way today that will help me thrive tomorrow? If not, why not?

Are you living in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow? Click To Tweet

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3. Lack of sleep

I’ve written about sleep before, and I’ve become a sleep evangelist of sorts over the last decade. (Here’s why sleep is a leader’s secret weapon in my view.)

Frankly, my conversion was involuntary. I used to pride myself on how little sleep I got. Now, most days, I unapologetically nap during the day and generally get 6-8 hours every night.

The truth is, before I started taking sleep seriously, I was awake, but I was a zombie. And despite being awake more hours, I wasn’t nearly as productive as I am today.

To say I’ve been 10x more productive since I started taking sleep seriously is probably not an exaggeration. I wanted to write a book all through my 30s. Never got a manuscript done.

I’ve written four books in the last 8 years. Plus launched this blog, and a podcast, started speaking at conferences more often, and worked full time on top of that.

I find when I cheat sleep now, it feels like my world comes crashing down. If I can call an audible and simply admit “Man, I’m tired” and get some rest, things come back into alignment surprisingly fast.

Not convinced being rested is a key component to great leadership? Gary Vaynerchuck and Arianna Huffington have a fascinating conversation about the necessity of sleep for leaders here.

A good night's sleep is a secret leadership weapon too many leaders miss. Click To Tweet

4. The amount of time since your last break

Leaders are often famous for taking little time off.

Like missing sleep, you make a mistake when you don’t make the time to recharge.

I’ve discovered over the years that if I am going to operate at my peak, I need a break or a diversion every 6-8 weeks, if even for a day. An extra day off, a short trip or something that can refuel me (even if it’s somewhat work-related) is often really restorative.

The longer it’s been since your last break, the longer it will take for you to feel truly great again. So take a break.

The longer it's been since your last break, the longer it will take for you to feel great again. Click To Tweet

5. What’s happening at home

Too often leaders think they can separate what happens at work from what happens at home.

Leading poorly at home always impacts how you lead at work. Just like you carry the weight of leadership around with you wherever you go, you also carry the weight of a bad marriage or a fractured family with you wherever you go.

If you win at work but lose at home, you’ve lost.

If you win at work but lose at home, you've lost. Click To Tweet

6. Constant connectivity

You can leave work, but thanks to your phone, work never leaves you.

I’m a connected guy, but even I found the constant buzzing of my phone to be too much.

Last year I turned off all notifications on my phone except for phone calls and text messages. And I’m selective about giving out my cell number.

I no longer feel my phone vibrate every time someone emails me, tweets me, likes a pic on Instagram or interacts on Facebook or Snapchat.

This isn’t just a tip for home; it helps at work too. It’s very hard to do any thinking if your phone is buzzing every minute, which for a season of my life it was.

Since your work no longer leaves you, you need to leave your work.

Another change I made last year: Sleeping with my phone in another room, turned off. Yep, I know that’s radical. I use an old-school alarm clock to wake me up. Most of the time, I’ve slept so well I wake up before the alarm. Imagine that.

7. Your spiritual state

As a Christian, I believe everything starts and ends with God.

Your ability to give love is directly related to how deeply you receive love. Your ability to love is like a bank account: you can only withdraw what has been deposited. Make too many withdrawals, and you go bankrupt.

As you know, leadership is a series of withdrawals. So you better make some deposits.

There is no greater source of love than God.

So, if you want:

To love the people you lead, it starts with God.

Wisdom, it comes from God.

To exude grace, that also comes from God.

When you sever a limb from the tree, it’s only a matter of time until it withers.

Leadership is a series of withdrawals. So you better make some deposits. Click To Tweet

8. Nutrition

Almost all food is brain food. Not all of it is good, but all of it affects your brain.

And if you’re paid to think (like many who read this blog are), your nutrition is critical.

Skipping meals, loading up on sugar, and otherwise eating poorly impacts everything from your energy level and blood sugar levels to your ability to think clearly.

I know for me, eating well is essential. Sometimes when I’m getting upset or angry, I realize it’s likely due to the fact I haven’t eaten or I’ve eaten poorly.

9. Change of venue

I realized a long time ago that I am deeply impacted by two things:

Choice of venue

Being in a single venue for too long

Sometimes, you simply have to step away from the screen, get out of the office and change the scenery.

In fact, I find my best ideas come to me when I’m not behind a computer screen or I’m within the first hour of a fresh venue.

Ideas I love often come to me when I’m cycling, doing yard work, in a fresh place (or favorite place that isn’t an office), or doing anything that doesn’t require me to sit behind a screen and write.

As a result, I have 3 or 4 ‘offices’ I use regularly, ranging from space at our church to a home office to the back porch to our living room.

Sometimes all I need to do to get a fresh perspective is change venues.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.

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