The Oxygen Mask Theory (Not a Theory, But a Fact)

Aug 13, 2019 | 0 comments

If you’ve been on a plane a few times, you can easily recall the flight attendant’s words: “Please secure your oxygen mask before assisting others.” If you pass out before you can help someone next to you, neither one of you will be able to breathe.

Cyndi Lee explains it best in that “Thinking of yourself first, when your goal is to help others, might seem counterintuitive, but in fact it is the only way it can work. In the end, the notion of putting oneself last is really an inside-out form of self-cherishing. That’s why during pre-flight instructions the flight attendant says to put on your own oxygen mask first.”

Agency leaders need to apply the oxygen mask theory in every aspect of their lives. The idea that we need to take care of ourselves before we can be of use to others isn’t the oxygen mask theory—it’s oxygen mask fact. In Hilary Scarlett’s words:

“If leaders don’t look after their own wellbeing first and foremost, they won’t have the capacity to care for their people and organization properly.”

Why We Need to Be a Little Selfish

Taking time to recharge isn’t selfish at all: it’s essential. We’re taught from a young age that we should think of others and put them first. Mothers and fathers are often praised for running themselves into the ground in order to put their children first; we might have seen that firsthand with our own parents. Agency leaders might make themselves available at all hours so their teams can reach them and get the help they need.

And it’s hard to find fault with that sacrifice, isn’t it? It’s noble to suffer so your kids or your team can have it all, right?

Unfortunately, when we’re suffering—whether it’s from stress, fatigue, anxiety, or any other symptom—we’re not at our best. We’re distracted, sad or short-tempered. We struggle with decisions and find it hard to focus. Work takes longer and doesn’t get completed at the quality level we’re accustomed to for ourselves. When we’re burnt out, we stop enjoying our agency. We might even start dreading it, and that’s not leadership.

By pressing on, you’re not really fooling anyone. Your team can sense when something’s not right with you. If you go on insisting all is well, you start to erode the trust you’re trying to build with them. Gilberto Rosas reminds us:

“Be true to yourself and act according to those actions. People will respect you more for it. If you keep up this facade of someone you’re not, people will, on a deeper level, resent and ultimately be repelled by that. It is not an attractive feature nor the characteristic of someone who’s likeable.”

Taking time for yourself to rest, recharge, heal, and think can make you a better leader in the long run. It frees you to be more open, honest and human with your team. Your team doesn’t want a superhero: they want the authentic you, someone they can understand, trust, and relate to. No one can work around the clock over the long term. We all need balance in our lives, especially as a leader with the responsibility of all aspects of our agency on our shoulders.

Serve Your Team by Taking Care of Yourself

We need to stop labeling “me time” as selfish. Setting boundaries between your work and personal lives is healthy. When your schedule is packed, saying, “No, I can’t take that on right now” is not only honest, it also allows the project to go to someone who really can devote the necessary time to it. Saying, “I can’t talk tonight, I’ll be spending time with my family” shows your family they are your priority—and it shows your team they’re free to do the same.

Taking time to recharge doesn’t always mean reading a book on the beach or getting a massage—although it certainly could. In the everyday sense, putting yourself first means taking time to exercise, eat your lunch (not at your desk), walk the dog, talk to your kids, and savor your coffee. It means taking an hour off for that dentist or medical appointment and staying home from work when you’re sick. It means shutting the door and clearing your head when you need to. Then, when it’s time to give your attention to your team, you can do so without distraction, guilt, or a sense of overwhelm. You’re ready to show up at your best.

We talk a lot about doing what’s best for the team, and sometimes that means putting yourself first. To become a steward of your people, you need to define and communicate your boundaries, be honest about what you can handle, and set an example. You want to cultivate and mentor a group of people who are eager to come to work and do a good job because they know they’re trusted, respected, and encouraged to have high-quality personal lives as well. After all, they’re following your lead. What are you inadvertently teaching them right now?

Agency Leader Transformation Coaching can help you take your agency to the next level—and to make the oxygen mask theory a fact in your own life. Let’s talk.

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Kelly L. Campbell

Kelly (they/she) is a Trauma-Informed Conscious Leadership Coach to self-aware visionaries, a keynote speaker and a sponsored podcast host. They are the founder of Consciousness Leaders, the world’s most diverse speaker’s agency. Her debut book on trauma and leadership, entitled Heal to Lead, will be available Spring 2024 (Wiley). Sign up for pre-launch notifications here.


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