February 21 2024

by Narketta Sparkman-Key, Ph.D.

Narketta Sparkman-Key Dr. Narketta Sparkman-Key is Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives and Global Affairs and Professor of Learning, Technology & Leadership Education at James Madison University. She was a speaker for Credo and AAC&U's Leadership Institute for Cabinet Leaders in 2023, where she presented as part of a panel about radical strategies to initiate in the moment during times of strain, crisis, and conflict.

Witnessing leaders, particularly women and gender-diverse leaders, give so much to their institutions and being left with nothing for themselves is disheartening. We have been shaken by the loss of three dynamic women leaders in the academy: JoAnne A. Epps, Dr. Orinthia T. Montague, and Dr. Antoinette Candia-Bailey and many of us are experiencing trauma from the treatment of  women leaders.  Now more than ever, we need to focus on radical self-care.   

The Strength of Radical Self-Care

In a recent conversation, a cabinet-level leader mentioned her discomfort with the term self-care. In her view there was something selfish within the act of self-care that brought her discomfort. As if the term self-care was associated with weakness—even though she knew an intentional focus on her well-being was needed. Her thoughts resonated with me and shook me to my core.

Are we not engaging in intentional care for ourselves due to the stigma that may be associated with it? Are we failing to model self-care for our direct reports?   

Defining Radical Self-Care

 The Global Self-Care Federation states, “Self-care is the practice of individuals looking after their own health using the knowledge and information available to them. It is a decision-making process that empowers individuals to look after their own health efficiently and conveniently, in collaboration with health and social care professionals as needed.” In sum, self-care extends beyond maintenance and takes us into the realms of wellness. However, radical self-care surpasses this definition. It is rooted in the foundational principle that you must put yourself first before you can care for others, and this action alone will preserve you. It is very similar to being on a flight and being required to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else.  

Audre Lorde first coined the concept of radical self-care stating, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and it is an act of political warfare.”

Prioritizing Self-Care

As cabinet-level leaders, our roles are often synonymous with caring for all others before caring for self. But as women leaders who are natural nurturers, that equates to us never getting to the point of really caring for ourselves, so something radical is necessary.

We are essential personnel charged with being responsive in times of crisis. We provide vision and leadership and are on call at any time of the day or night. This was evident during COVID-19 in which cabinet-level leaders led efforts, organized teams, and were integral in addressing community needs. The fast pace of the job, expectations of stakeholders, and the need to foster a safe environment for all often leaves no time to reflect or address emotions associated with the crisis experiences. 

Leading in times of crisis can cause anxiety, trauma, and extreme stress, often leaving scars that never heal and bruises we ignore. Cabinet-level women leaders must take steps towards healing after each crisis. In fact, the focus on healing should not wait on a crisis, but be interwoven with a regular self-care regimen.

creating your radical Self-Care regimen

Radical self-care requires an intentional focus on care for self and in the moment self-examination of feelings and needs. There must also be a focus on wellness (physical, mental, and emotional), healing, and self-acceptance.    

Angela Davis once said, “Anyone who is interested in making change in the world, also has to learn how to take care of herself, himself, theirselves.” 

Radical Self-Care in Real Time

Cabinet-level women and gender-diverse leaders must embrace radical self-care rooted in healing, wellness, and preservation. This involves dedicating time to one's own healing process, recognizing that it's essential for effective leadership. Radical self-care is not about overworking or indulgence, nor does it look the same for everyone.

Take time to engage in these in the moment steps that recognize individual needs and foster a culture of self-care amidst demanding roles:

  • Stop what you are doing to assess your emotions and needs to achieve wellness and healing. 
  • Drop your calendar and begin to clear time for you to care for your needs .
  • Roll immediately into a self-care plan that addresses your mental, physical, and emotional needs. 

Self-Care Strategies to Begin Today

The following practices can encourage and strengthen a self-care routine for cabinet-level leaders:

  • Adopt the Stop, Drop, and Roll practice as a part of your routine. 
  • Make a commitment to healing that is rooted in an ongoing self-care plan. 
  • Be open to seeking assistance in the healing process through counseling or coaching.
  • Seek an accountability partner such as a mentor or coach. 
  • Seek a co-collaborator you can trust in navigating crisis such as an executive coach; navigating crisis can be lonely and promote anxiety due to the need to maintain confidentiality.
  • Create a habit of journaling to reflect and process your emotions, identifying areas where healing is needed. 
  • Make sure self-care activities are rooted within your everyday operations such as setting clear boundaries, healthy eating, physical activity, a nap regimen, and activities outside of work that bring you joy.
  • Focus on planning for personal wellness.  

Paving Your Unique Journey To care

Radical self-care is an individual journey that will look different for each of us. To have longevity in your leadership it must be interwoven in how you lead. It should be modeled for your team and must be a priority. Caring for yourself is necessary so that you can provide the best care and leadership to your academic community.   

About The Author

Dr. Narketta Sparkman-Key is Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives and Global Affairs and Professor of Learning, Technology and Leadership Education at James Madison University. 

More about Dr. Sparkman-Key -> 

*Photo Credit to James Madison University. 

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