Radical Self-Care for CAOs

The foundational principle of self-care is that individuals must put themselves first before they can care for others.  However, as chief academic officer (CAO), the role is rooted in caring for all others before caring for oneself.  CAOs must be responsive to crises and are considered essential personnel.  They must be present in times of crisis and expected to provide vision and leadership in navigating them.  During the most stressful moments, they are on call at any time of the day or night.  This sentiment was evident during COVID-19, in which CAOs led efforts, organized teams, and played an integral role in addressing community needs.  CAOs face complex challenges within higher education environments and make collaborative decisions to manage them.  CAOs are required to react to some of the most horrific situations.  They must examine, experience, and address some issues that can cause vicarious trauma.

Nevertheless, the fast pace of the job, the expectations of stakeholders, and the need to foster a safe environment all come before self-care.  Often, no time is available to reflect or address emotions.  So when does self-care become apparent and needed?  CAOs need to be more focused on self-care.  After the world stabilized from the initial impact of COVID-19, the focus shifted to normalizing our environments rather than addressing the implications for human capital.  The increasing instances of traumatizing events within higher education environments are having an impact on wellness.  Nevertheless, we still need to focus on the effects of those on the front lines of addressing these issues.

Self-care must be radical for CAOs.  CAOs must dedicate themselves to the notion of radical self-care when it is needed the most.  Radical self-care was initially introduced through Audre Lorde when she stated, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”.  It is doing something so different from the norm.  It is not about lavish spending or traditional grooming.  Radical self-care is rooted in healing.  The basic tenets of radical self-care are that a person must focus on their healing process and that the healing process is the first step to self-care.  Leading in crisis can cause anxiety, trauma, and extreme stress, often leaving scars that never heal and bruises we ignore.  CAOs must take steps toward healing after each crisis.  The focus on recovery should not wait on a problem. CAOs should interweave this focus into a regular self-care regimen.  CAOs should consider the following within their routine:

1. A commitment to identifying areas where healing is necessary root a focus on healing into an ongoing self-care plan.

2.  An openness to seeking assistance in the healing process through counseling and other therapeutic measures.

3. Hold themselves accountable by seeking an accountability partner, such as a mentor or coach.

4.  A commitment to not addressing a crisis alone. Having a confidential co-collaborators, such as an executive coach, are essential in navigating the situation.

5.  A commitment to a plan that helps to process and explore the full range of emotions related to the issues encountered. This may include a hobby or time alone in reflection.

6. Embrace journaling to process emotions, identify areas where healing is needed, and reflect. This is also an excellent tool for identifying all the possibilities in decision-making.

7.  Make sure self-care activities are rooted within everyday operations, such as clear boundaries, pausing to process the issue before making the decision, healthy eating, physical exercise, a nap regimen, and things outside of work that bring joy.

Radical self-care may look different for each CAO.  However, it increases longevity in leadership.  Radical self-care must be interwoven within leadership style.  A commitment to radical self-care is necessary to provide the best care and leadership in the role of CAO.

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