Choose yourself first

woman, art, abstract

In the days after Simone Biles stepped back from the team gymnastics final at this summer’s Olympic Games in Japan, I read article after article about the impact of her decision. We hold our elite athletes – especially Olympic athletes – to a higher standard of behaviour than the rest of the world. To be clear, exploring the patriarchal framework of those standards would make my head explode right now, so let’s leave that to another day. Instead, I want to commend her for her bravery in standing up for what was right for her, and in this blog, I want to talk about how you, as a brave female leader, face the same choice as Simone Biles every single day.

It is natural that young and not-so-young women everywhere look up to fierce, badass female role models like Simone Biles. I remember being a young girl watching the summer Olympics. I spent hours jumping off the couch in my neon pink bathing suit, pressing out my chest, raising my arms in victory, my wrists and fingers elegantly poised to give the impression that what I had just done was no big deal. To be clear, I was literally hopping off the couch and practicing my landing. I was, and still am, uncoordinated and graceless and have a 3 inch vertical jump.

I also remember growing up in my career, watching the women around me – and especially those in positions of authority. The ones I noticed most were confident and assured in their roles – I knew that they knew what they were doing. I spent the majority of my career in the extended public service, at a time when women were finally being accepted as leaders. But to be accepted by the men in the boardrooms, they had to lead like men – ruthless, cool, unemotional, and focused on numbers, productivity, and divisive strategy.  

To be honest, I didn’t like these women a whole lot. And as a young woman who grew up knowing she wanted to be a boss (not The Boss – though I have loved Springsteen since I was 7), I was unsure how to find my way forward – because I didn’t want to be that kind of boss. Instead, I gravitated toward female role models who were confident, but also human – who had high expectations, but were fair, understanding, and interested in finding ways to help me use my greatest gifts in the workplace.

In looking back at inspirational bosses I’ve had, I can see now that part of what I appreciated about them was that, despite their commitment to our work, they prioritized themselves.  They lived rich lives outside of the workplace – and they shared about their lives with our team. They weren’t inappropriately sharing, but authentically demonstrating their humanity. They talked about their struggles with their kids, proud moments when they were volunteering, and exciting adventures from their holidays. They were human, and they were leaders. They were professional, and they showed emotion. They put people first, and they cared about getting the work done. And perhaps most importantly, they did not apologize for taking care of their physical and mental health.

Choosing myself

Two years ago, I took a two month leave of absence from work to take care of my mental health; my wonderful father-in-law had been diagnosed with an aggressive terminal illness and family and I were struggling to cope. Yes, I could have continued to work – and I know how privileged I was to be able to take that time. I was in an executive role with significant influence across our organization. It was a role that required me to be a corporate cheerleader, someone who made connections, pivoted to the positive, and created opportunities. If I were there, I would have to be “on” all the time. I also knew that wasn’t possible. So in a moment of clarity, I went to my boss and asked for the time. I didn’t apologize, I simply told him what was happening, and why I needed to step away.

There was nothing easy about that time away from work (notice I didn’t use the term “off” work). It was an emotionally exhausting period marked by days that lasted forever, but weeks that flew by in the blink of an eye. I focused on my own mental health, with a lot of journaling and meditation practice. I spent time with dad, and made memories that I’ll cherish forever. The one thing I didn’t do was worry that work would fall apart without me. I had built an incredible team. No, they weren’t exactly like me. But when I wasn’t there, they stepped in. They cared about the work, wanted to make me proud, and were itching to grow.

I was honest with my team and anyone who asked about what was happening in my life. It wasn’t a secret – in fact I believe we need to normalize talking about mental health, so I speak very plainly about my experiences. But when I came back to the workplace, I was surprised and overwhelmed at the messages I had received from colleagues across the organization. I had dozens of emails with kind words of support. But I also received messages from women who said they took inspiration from me – that they too needed to prioritize themselves, and by seeing me taking time, they realized they too could make some changes.

Choosing yourself

The organization – whatever organization you work for – is a machine. It will take and take and take as long as you give. Society glorifies this grind culture, and as women, we experience it not just at work but often at home as well. We convince ourselves it is impossible to get off the hamster wheel – and if not impossible, we believe it would be irresponsible to step away.

And yet, every day, you do have a choice. The same choice that Simone Biles had. To blindly continue down the path that everyone expects you to take. Or to pause, ask yourself what you need in this moment, and then take it unapologetically. In some circumstances, that means stepping away from an Olympic final or taking a two month leave of absence. In others, it means shutting your computer down at 4:30, saying no to a meeting that you really don’t need to be at, or taking two minutes before a phone call to put your feet on the ground, close your eyes, and breathe.

Choose yourself first. You’re worth it. And so are the women who are looking at you as their role model.

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