putting your oxygen mask on first

Putting your oxygen mask on first

Recently we hosted a ‘wellbeing and performance’ webinar for UN leaders, inviting them to stand back from their day to day pressures to reflect on their resourcefulness and expand their options for keeping resilient.

It seems as humans we need a certain level of pressure to perform. But when does that pressure become too much, that healthy ‘eustress’ becomes distress? How we handle pressure, what our tipping point is, is all very individual to us – a product of our environment, our programming, our experiences. And we are our own ‘Swiss army knife’ equipped with an individual set of spiritual, mental, emotional and physical resources to help us on our way.

For many leaders, to ‘spend time’ on one’s own wellbeing, to ‘re-source’ can feel self-indulgent, selfish or unnecessary. And yet, we also know intuitively, that if we look after ourselves, we are in a better position to look after others. It is a VUCA world, full of uncertainty and a lot feels out of our control, but there is a lot in our control, it is how we respond to it that makes the difference.

Drawing inspiration from our programmes like Going the Distance, or the specific Mindfulness Lab programmes we undertook for over 200 WIND employees in Italy, we focused on three areas that  the leaders identified as priorities: mind matterstime and choice, and healthy behaviours. The participants were keen to explore what it meant for themselves, as well as for their teams. You may similarly find them a useful prompt.

Mind Matters


Our mind is an incredible instrument. And yet it can cause most of our suffering if we don’t learn to control it. As a saying goes, “when the train of thought is coming through the station, there is no need to get on board”. If we learn to pause through mindfulness or meditation, we can remain calm on the platform and choose the trains to board more selectively. As we explored with the leaders, these may include positive thinking, taking an appreciative inquiry approach, learned optimism strategies such as distracting or distancing oneself, disputing our own assumptions and beliefs, and embracing paradox. The point is, that from the platform of stillness, we have more possibilities for responding appropriately.  

Time and Choice


Wherever we are in a hierarchy, at times we can feel out of control of our own diary. Standing back and reflecting on our priorities through the lens that urgency and importance is not the same thing, is, as the leaders were reminded, a good starting point. So is taking an honest look at the attitudes, beliefs and capabilities underpinning our time management. We may find ourselves stuck in a certain ‘hard-working’ identity. We may over-value busyness and undervalue stillness. Or we may just need to get more skilled in setting expectations and negotiating with others.

Healthy Behaviours


What little steps can we incorporate into our daily lives to improve our sleep, hydration, eating and exercise? Getting back to basics in this way is in itself hugely liberating and a great act of self-love. As is self-compassion and patience we can show ourselves, when we don’t end up doing that very thing we intended. For all we need to do is to take a deep breath, press the reset button and start again with new resolve.

As a recent HBR article emphasised, resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure. We owe it to ourselves and others to look our own wellbeing. Sustainable leadership involves sustaining your own performance and wellbeing. Responsible leadership involves taking responsibility for your own wellbeing and performance. It is therefore sound advice, perhaps life-saving, as any air crew will tell you “to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others”.

Penelope Mavor is a Consultant at Impact Italia.