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Creating Your Leadership Margin

The term margin always perks ears. Gross margin, profit margin, contribution margin, margin of safety; margin has many uses and equally many definitions depending on industry (accounting, engineering, financial, and pharmaceutical, etc.) and application. A personal margin of safety is another definition to add to the list and may be the most important of all to leaders.

In his book, “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives“, Dr. Richard Swenson, M.D. defined a personal margin of safety as “the space between our load and our limits. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations.” If we are overloaded we have no margin. As a result, the impact of a leader’s personal margin of safety is felt across and affects the entire organization. What are these effects?

We are by and large delicate creatures who are easily distracted and overloaded by the complexity that life throws our way. We adapt different approaches and defenses that often offer little or no prospect of long term success in combating overload, leading to a huge cognitive drain and questionable decisions. Can you think of a time when you experienced overload?

Creating and maintaining margin is critical to managing stressful situations and effective decision making. A leader’s margin of safety can be developed via a series of small steps. Here are a few steps and ideas leaders have shared with me:

  1. Be humble. In a society that favors the strong, humility is often seen as a weakness. Mike Austin, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University offers a different perspective on humility that is supported by research, “It’s more about a proper or accurate assessment. A big part of humility is knowing our own limits, our strengths and weaknesses, morally or otherwise.”
  2. Once you’ve made this assessment, define your personal margin needs. It is much easier to manage goals and opportunities in a balanced, flexible manner when you begin with the end in mind and acknowledge your own needs in meeting challenges.
  3. Make time for others. Grow your relationships and community to provide a safety net when you need it. From the mail room to the C-Suite, margin is built through connection.
  4. Exercise and/or relax. Taking time out to take care of yourself in periods as short as 20 minutes a day helps you recharge yourself and renew your commitment.

Creating, maintaining and maximizing your personal margin builds a foundation for effective leadership and combating overload. A little margin goes a long way in the impact we have on those around us and in maximizing the gross margin, profit margin, contribution margin of the organizations we lead.

What will you do today to make this happen?

Be sure to visit Dan’s column, “Performance Thinking with Dan Sheedy” for other insights into leadership best practices.