It’s Time to Grow Up

Traits of a Maturing Leader

It’s Time to Grow Up
Photo by Ben Rosett / Unsplash

If you’re anything like me, you put off becoming an adult as long as as possible. I graduated from college and the lifestyle cultivated during those four years carried over into my newly adult world. I stayed up late. I ate whatever bacon-topped, cheese dripping thing that came my way. To say I was inactive would be an understatement. I told myself that being overworked was good. Even after getting married — a pretty adult thing to do — these behaviors continued.

Over the the last few years my live-in-Neverland-and-never-grow-up mentality came crashing back to reality. All it took was one trip to the hospital and another serious injury for me to realize that becoming an adult was actually inevitable. As I matured, it became exceedingly clear that some of my behaviors were doing me a disservice. A little time and self-reflection later and I have cultivated a few traits that allowed me to mature and help others do the same.

Maturing Wardrobe

You are what you wear.

Our wardrobe tells a story about who we are. For the longest time, I was showing up to the office in sandals, shorts, and t-shirts. I work with teenagers, so I took my wardrobe cues from them. Teenage style revolves around comfort and doesn’t require a lot of thought and coordination. T-shirts pretty much go with everything. That was my kind of wardrobe.

Two years ago I stepped off a curb wrong and tore a ligament in my ankle. Part of growing up is hurting yourself doing stupid things, like walking. The injury required me to shelve the sandals and wear shoes and an ankle brace for a few months. This was the first time since high school I was wearing shoes daily. It seems silly, but the people I work with were shocked to see me in shoes. This should have been my first clue.

Tennis shoes and shorts felt informal in a way that sandals never did. It’s funny how such a small change can provide grandious perspective. I changed my shorts out for pants. Pants and t-shirts seemed just as informal as the tennis shoes and shorts. For the first time since college, button-downs returned to my regular wardrobe and t-shirts were relegated to days off.

Quickly, my wardrobe story evolved and told people I cared enough about myself to look nice. A small amount of money invested at Uniqlo and Old Navy and I had matured my wardrobe into something inviting respect. I still wear t-shirts at home and, occasionally, to work. They’re comfortable, but they are no longer the basis of my entire closet.

A mature wardrobe doesn’t mean suits and ties. A mature wardrobe is defined by clothes that tell the story of a respectable adult. I may work with teenagers, but I no longer dress like them — most of the time at least.

Maturing Diet

You are what you eat.

I have very odd hours that change from day to day and week to week. For the longest time I did not eat regular meals. Breakfast was often skipped. Lunch would be whatever I could find or what I ordered in. Dinner would be whenever I was done for the day or would be cobbled together over the course of the evening. And let’s not forget the sweets.

In our office, there are always sweets available. Someone is constantly bringing cookies or breads or leftovers from last night’s meetings. We all returned in the new year to a bag of homemade fudge in the break room, perfect to break those pesky “get healty” resolutions. All of these things added up to a lack of energy and general lethargic existence.

A maturing diet isn’t about cutting carbs or dropping a few pounds. Those might be part of your plan, but a truly mature diet is eating like a normal human being at regular intervals. I added breakfast back into my routine — a simple yogurt and granola each morning. I stopped ordering in and started packing my lunch with nuts and cheese and apples and deli meat. Dinner became something cooked at home.

I occasionally still order lunches in. My wife and I still go out to dinner whenever we can. I love food. I even manage a publication focused on food. The difference is I make a conscious effort to eat at regular times and in as healthy a combination as possible. This results in more energy throughout the day and an overall healthier feeling. Could I eat better? Yes, of course. My diet is maturing, it’s not fully matured.

Maturing Self-Care

You are how you care for yourself.

A few years ago I was suffering chest pains. They were on and off for about a week. On a Friday evening after dinner, I finally told my wife. First tip of maturing self-care: don’t ignore pain, especially when in your chest.

A few hours later I was wired every which way to a hospital bed and talking with an older doctor. He explained that I was medically fine. The EKG and other tests he had run all showed that I was healthy. The pains I were experiencing were all stress induced.

This hit like a brick. Stress? I didn’t have stress. I was busy, yes. I had things to get done, but they didn’t cause stress. Stress was for people who couldn’t cope with their issues. That wasn’t me…

I had to take a hard look at myself. I had developed a flawed belief that never slowing down and working six-days a week was healthy.

The stress induced issues I experienced weren’t serious, yet. If untreated, however, they could easily develop into something that would have real medical implications. The doctor told me to take a week off from work — something I had not done in years — and create a self-care routine.

At the time, self-care was a completely foreign concept to me. Spending my day off on the couch playing video games and checking my email every now and then while eating chicken nuggets covered in ham cheese — what I call poor man’s chicken cordon blue — and topped with barbecue sauce served with a side of fries was how I cared for myself. This would no longer cut it. I needed something that would help relieve my stress, not just mask it.

I tried the gym. I tried running. I tried a number of different things but nothing relaxed me and helped reduce my stress. If those things work for you, more power to you. For me, they added additional stress and pain and weren’t doing me any favors.

The self-care routine I developed consists of not checking work email on my phone, weekly yin yoga, monthly massage therapy, and an annual week long vacation. The yoga and massages help to relieve ongoing stress. The vacation provides something to look forward to and a much needed time disconnecting from work. A vacation, with the work email turned off, does wonders for the psyche.

Self-care is the most vital part of becoming a maturing leader. Everyone needs to develop a personalized pattern of rest and stress relief. We all need breaks. We all need rest. If we don’t stop and slow down, we’ll literally work ourselves to death. That is not leadership. That is insanity.

Maturing Leadership

You are how you spend your time.

To become a maturing leader, we must make an investment into ourselves. It’s a monetary investment into new clothes, better food, and a routine of self-care. It’s also an investment of time.

Look, I’d love to spend my time lying on the couch and playing video games and eating whatever I want, and sometimes I still need a day like that. Though I see the value in turning off the Playstation and turning on the iron from time to time too. It takes 20 minutes to iron my clothes and that small investment of time makes a huge difference in my appearance and self-worth. This is coming from someone who didn’t own an iron until last year.

I hadn’t bought new clothes in years, so upgrading my wardrobe took some time to try on clothes and shop — something I absolutely hate doing. Taking time each day to make breakfast and pack a lunch takes away precious moments of sleep. That lost time is more than made up for through the energy gained from regular and mostly healthy meals. Taking an hour a week to turn off my phone and practice yoga gives my brain time to turn off and recharge. This weekly investment of time is priceless.

The biggest — and often hardest — way to invest time into ourselves is saying no. We want to make sure our employers see our value, so we work hard and take on extra projects. We work late. We work from home in the evening. But maturing leadership is about seeing that our time is limited and we need to spend some of it on ourselves and those we care about. That means being able to say no to projects or people or things that demand too much of our time.

Maturing leadership shows that we care enough about ourselves to invest in results. This kind of investment invites respect from others. Respecting ourselves enough to be better, more relaxed, and less stressful will set us apart from others. Self-respect exemplifies true leadership.

I’m not a perfectly mature leader. I almost missed a massage therapy appointment last week when I lost track of time outlining this very piece. The irony was not lost on me. Maturing leadership is a process. The more time invested into maturing these traits, the more self-respect gained. Invite respect from those around you by first respecting yourself. That is the trait of a truly mature leader.

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!