Put On Your Oxygen Mask First

The team had lost key senior people. Suddenly, I was no longer a voice with an opinion. I was the one the rest of the team was looking to for cues about what to do.

And I was fucking it up badly.

In the middle of a conversation I dropped a sexist B-word when I knew better. In a meeting I didn’t just hijack the conversation, I told the rest of the team that they should know how to do what I was talking about because “you’re all designers, you should know.” Earlier on I’d accidentally criticized a young designer’s work in front of clients… and her.

That’s not being a leader. That’s being an asshole.

A coworker finally called me on the carpet. “Are you going to be the leader people run to, or run from?”

That hurt. Because I’d spent a lot of my career trying to run from leaders that you run away from. And now I was becoming one myself.

And it all started so innocently. I got too comfortable with my role. At the same time, I wasn’t taking care of myself. Not sleeping enough, relying on caffeine, letting the black dog of depression sneak back into the house.

I spent a lot of time looking at “what great leaders do” listicles online to try and figure out what it was I was supposed to be doing. Figure out the union of the clickbait, as it were.

For example:

Great leaders listen. I worry that I talk too much, myself. But even then, am I really listening and digging for the truths? Or am I distracted by the thousand things I need to do?

Great leaders praise publicly and criticize privately. Yeah, I need to get this the right way around more. I didn’t mean to kick the young designer in the shins over what was a simple mistake… but there I went. Maybe I was trying to fit in. Maybe I was trying to assert authority. Either way, it was wrong.

Great leaders are positive AND realistic. I’m not a positive person, as all my friends and coworkers over the years know. I am a human Eeyore. That said, my realism can be quite optimistic. But are those who look up to me taking their cues from my lack of positivity, or my passionate realism?

Great leaders take responsibility. And this is something I’ve long done. Heck, I’m doing it now, in public. I take responsibility for not getting it right. People need me to stand up and lead, and I’ve been doing it poorly.

But the oddity for me in going through all these listicles is that they never say, “Leaders take care of themselves.” Is it a given they do? Or is it not important?

One of the lessons from my Year Of Hell is an adage popularized by Randy Pausch:

Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

When I don’t sleep, when I don’t eat well, when I don’t do the self-care I need to do to keep the depression at bay, I become a horrible person… and I don’t even notice it. But everyone else does.

I want to be sacrificial as a leader. I was taught from the beginning that leaders are servants first, and I haven’t wavered from that thinking. But get me under-slept, get me in a foul mood, and I’m not that. I’m something else. Something dark.

So, am I a leader people run to, or run from? I want to be the one people run to. I want to make that impact, but I can’t do that if I let myself do the wrong things to people who look up to me. And worse, I can’t do that if I do the wrong things to myself.

I’m now listening to my body. Getting sleep, cutting caffeine, exercising more, getting help from others. I’m also reminding myself to listen attentively, to let others speak, and to be mindful of my words and actions. But I need to put myself in a position where I can listen and be mindful, and that means putting my oxygen mask on first.

Do you want to be someone people run to, or run from? And how are you taking care of yourself to make sure when they run to you, you can give them exactly what they need?

Author: Dylan Wilbanks

Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent nearly 20 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he's really sorry about it. With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it. He likes nectarines. You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at dylanwilbanks.com.