Can leaders put themselves first?

Can leaders put themselves first?

For a long time the mantra every leader, especially in service companies, chanted was ‘the customer comes first, the customer comes first’. No matter what or how it is done, or the toll it may take on the teams, the customer comes first.

Work-wellbeing and leadership

Over the last year or two when I have browsed through my LinkedIn feed, instead of seeing slogans about how the customer comes first, I have noticed that what is much more popular, is content relating to work-wellbeing and leadership – not management, but leadership.


For some time now it has been apparent that the mantra is no longer “the customer first”, but “employees first”. Customers will follow; happy employees will maintain and gain new customers.


But how do we do that?


In conversation with my colleagues from the leadership program Esimiehestä johtajaksi, it has  become apparent that we all feel like a deer in headlights every now and then, with too many things to do in too little time.

This can mean being constantly tired and trying to see how many things we can juggle at the same time.


The number one advice for a leader

During the 6-month long Esimiehestä Johtajaksi leadership development program, we have heard several excellent guest speakers such as Director-General Taina Susiluoto of The Ministry of Employment and the Economy and CEO Kari Onniselkä of Ramboll Finland describing their journey to a leadership position.


When asked what the main advice is that has helped them succeed as leaders, the first and most common answer has been: your own well-being. You must think about yourself and your well-being, otherwise you will burn out and cannot function nor be an excellent leader.


What was that again?


We all (well, me at least since I asked the question) expected to essentially get a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory as an answer. Advice which would somehow help us manage our days better. Instead what we got was ‘you have to think about yourself and more importantly take care of yourself’.


How is this going to help me in dealing with the difficult situations I may encounter at work? This led me to think, can a leader think me first?


The easy answer is yes. But rarely are things that black and white.


The trend and competition of “who has slept the least” seems to be passing (even though it sadly surfaces every now and then) and people are moving toward a more balanced life to the extent they can. Even some media personalities, such as Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington has taken as a new passion project: sleep. We all need plenty of it in order to function and we need to function well as leaders. If we are not taking care of ourselves, and sometimes put ourselves first, we cannot effectively lead others. It is as they always instruct about oxygen masks when an airplane takes off: help yourself first to then help others.


So maybe the question should be, when can a leader think me first? And why is it ok for a leader to think me first?


The thing all of us in management positions must do, is identifying and recognising the situations when to put ourselves first. 


Knowing that is the mark of a good leader.


Katriina is VP of Business Development at M-Brain. Katriina Laine was a participant of the leadership program Esimiehestä Johtajaksi 2016. A version of this blog was first published in the Esimiehestä Johtajaksi -program blog.