What All Leaders Need {the oxygen mask principle}

Looking like giants, grown ups filled the small chairs in the elementary school library. They showed up for encouragement. With increasing regulations and a longer “to do” list, they were feeling like their buckets were full of holes. It was difficult for them to believe they could do things like say “no, not today” or stop for a break. We talked about practicing excellent self care. I call it the Oxygen Mask Principle.

My favorite flight instructions are those concerning the need for an oxygen mask. Passengers are told “If you are flying with a small child or with someone who made need assistance, put your oxygen mask on first, then assist them with theirs.”

The first time I heard this, I wondered if I would be able to do it – you know, put my mask on first, and THEN help my child with hers. What kind of mother do you think I am?! Then I realized that if I did not get the oxygen I needed, neither of us would and we’d end up passed out in the seat, helpless.

weary exhausted woman tired

That happens in the day to day. We sometimes get lost in the demands, the requests, trying to do our best and keep everyone happy. And before you know it, we feel like we need some oxygen! With needs always calling our names, it’s very easy to get caught up in the rapids of the river of responsibility. My friend Rosa says to not fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent. Stress is cumulative – it all adds up! And it’s not the big crisis stuff, but the day to day.

If we will learn the habit of self-care (without guilt, southern women!) we will be healthier mentally, emotionally, and physically, and be more able to carry out our tasks well and in peace.

recovery-bucket stress refreshment

So what do all leaders need besides oxygen and a pat on the back? If you want to keep your bucket full you have 2 options:

  1. Refill your bucket on a regular basis, taking time for yourself, getting the sleep you need, eating healthy, and allowing time for fun and recovery. OR…
  2. You can allow the stressors in your life to build up and drain your bucket of all you have. Once you are empty and depleted, your body will force you to rest through either injury or illness. Recovery should not be negotiable.

Our bucket is like our heart. The Bible says, “Guard your heart, for from it flows the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23) What are we surrounding ourselves with? That’s the well we are dipping our bucket into, and what’s in the well will always come up in the bucket! So what do all leaders need?

  1. All leaders need a support network of others who don’t take from us, but who encourage and bless us, pouring into us. Do your 5 closest friends do that for you?
  2. All leaders need to practice good self-care, scheduling time to “refill their buckets”. Give yourself permission to put on that oxygen mask!
  3. All leaders need to express their stress. Stress is cumulative. Practice daily expressing how you feel to God, journaling, talking it out, or being physically active, finding a way to relieve built up pressure. Emotions not expressed only remain inside and will one day find a target, meanwhile affecting your health. How can you express your stress? And when you are headed into a difficult week or circumstance, allow yourself more space and time. Get filled up from a good well before heading into stressful events.
  4. All leaders need to practice gratitude. Look for the gifts around you that if too busy you might miss. Slow down in the moment and notice things like the sunrise shining through the leaves to warm your face, or the way a child takes your hand and looks up, or the touch of a friend who loves you without words. I call it counting gifts. You may want to start a journal and begin listing the gifts you find! Thanksgiving isn’t just a great holiday; it’s a lifestyle. Gratitude changes us. It closes the holes in our buckets and warms our hearts. It slows down time and we realize again that God is for us. 
  5. All leaders need to lift the gift out of trying times. There are stages of life that are hard, but God is working to weave good, even excellence, out of hard places. Look for and “lift the gift” right out of it – something you learned that will help make your future better and grow you up some more.

Keeping your bucket full won’t just happen. We must be intentional and give ourselves permission and learn to practice loving ourselves spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically. You are worth taking care of.

With love & grace,


From the desk by the window on a cloudy, rainy day. Where’s my cup of tea?

(c) Sozo Life & Leadership, LLC, November 24, 2014

Sources: Thanks to James Clear for the great graphic and a couple of ideas. The Bible as my source of wisdom and guidance.


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