Why Business Leaders Need to 'Put Their Own Oxygen Mask on First'


By Wayne Rivers, Family Business Institute

My wife and I were travelling to the AGC convention – the last large business gathering we’re likely to attend in this most atypical year – and the airline announcements came on. I’ve always been struck by the one that says, “If you're traveling with small children, put your own oxygen mask on first.” If you think about it, there's some real common sense in that advice. Why does the airline tell you to put your own mask on first? Well, if you're unable to breathe, you're not going to be much help to the children with whom you're traveling. That admonition can easily apply to leaders in construction companies trying to get the most out of their people. When it comes to leadership, you really ought to “put your own oxygen mask on first.”

When, in a business sense, you put your own oxygen mask on first, you demonstrate that you’re ready, willing, and able to take your own medicine, to take your own advice. You encourage your employees to do things like read business books, get additional training, or even hire a coach. Why wouldn’t you do the same? Why wouldn’t you seek to get better, smarter, more effective, and learn new things? You must lead by example if you want to be relatable do your employees. 

Another way to put your own mask on first is to, as Stephen Covey says, keep the main thing the main thing. The human brain simply cannot juggle 30 priorities simultaneously. It can effectively handle at the most two, and it's even better if it’s just one. If your employees see you juggling 30 balls every day while you’re telling them to focus and attempt fewer tasks in order to be more efficient, what are they likely to do? Are they going to listen to what you say, or will they mirror your behavior? A commentator once said, “If you can’t manage yourself, you can’t manage anyone else either.” If you’re going to manage yourself, you've got to sharpen your focus on what you're doing and have fewer competing priorities.

The third way to put on your own mask is to demonstrate a healthy work/life balance. Keep in mind that even the most well-balanced construction executive is going to have periods of great intensity and extremely hard work. That’s unavoidable. But even the most energetic entrepreneur cannot work at 110% capacity week after week, year after year. If you're sending emails or leaving voicemails for employees at 3 am, what might they take away from that? If they’re driving home from soccer practice with their children and see your car in the office parking lot at 8 pm, what’s the message? You're telling them that you have an awful, stressful, unforgiving, and incredibly demanding job! As they look at opportunities for advancement in your company, they might look at you putting in those interminable hours and say, "Gosh, I don't want his job! That guy works all the time! He's got no balance in his life!" 

Resolve to have better balance between work and your life. There are great podcasts and books about self and time management. Dig into them and see what tips you can apply to smooth out your workdays and separate between your personal and family time. Demonstrate to yourself and your employees that you understand and value family, community, and good personal health. Your employees will reap benefits from you modeling this behavior, and the other benefits will quickly become apparent. 

Matthew 7:3 reads "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" As leaders, it's awfully easy for us to find fault with the way our employees or peers do things. But are you applying the same rigorous standard about how you are doing in your own role? There are things, some quite simple and commonsensical, that we all can do to be better leaders, to be even more productive, and especially to have better work-life balance. To be a great example of leadership in the construction industry, remember to put your own oxygen mask on first.