‘Leaders Eat First’

I was shaking. Breathless. I could barely communicate with my wife on the other end of the line. The growing panic in her voice felt like needles in my chest.

“I have to go,” I said. “They’re calling me in.”

I knew my life was over. They say you can never really know anything, but I knew.

I made my way back inside the hospital. I was only four hours from home, but home had never felt so far away. As I walked into the consultation room, once again I found tears in my eyes and my chest devoid of breath. The doctor triple checked the screen, and appeared confused at my behaviour. She told me “there’s nothing wrong. Everything is normal. You are a healthy 27-year-old man.”

You might think this would be music to my ears, but frankly, I didn’t believe her. This did nothing to explain why my legs were continuously ravaged by pins and needles, why my hands kept cramping, and why my feet occasionally felt numb and leaden. Thankfully, my doctor transformed herself into my coach and began asking questions, and within a couple of minutes she had all the answers she needed.

Her diagnosis: STRESS. That’s right. STRESS.

I had no idea that stress could physically impact you, and in reflection at that time I had everything going on.

  • I was overworked.
  • I wasn’t exercising.
  • My wife was pregnant and unwell.
  • I was fuelling my body with junk food because it was quick and easy.
  • I was constantly on the road, driving thousands of miles a week.
  • My financial situation was dire.
  • And I was struggling to be the father my daughter needed me to be.

I felt ashamed.

Here was I, Cameron Parker, a man who is supposed to be the leader of the younger generation, inconsolable and breaking down in front of a complete stranger.

“This shouldn’t be happening to me.”

“I’m supposed to be a role model.”

“My job is to help other people, if they knew about this then no one would listen.”

“I’m weak. I shouldn’t be here.”

All the negative self-talk tropes began to circle in my mind.

So, it is no surprise that when I typed all my symptoms into Google (I know, I know, the worst thing you can do), there on my screen appeared all these deadly diseases. The icing on the cake, the thing that tipped me over the edge, was that I convinced myself I was dying, and funnily enough, when I did that, I made myself even more ill.

It might appear ludicrous, but when you are feeling low, exhausted and beaten, then something unknown arises within you, and you feel your capacity to see things more clearly and objectively begin to slip away.

Ironically, that week I was running workshops with year 11s on stress and anxiety.

Going through that experience has provided me with a completely different perspective and insight, which is why I want to talk about the notion that ‘Leaders eat FIRST’. If you are like me, you might find this hard to accept, especially if you are focused on being the vehicle to help carry others. Whether that means being a parent, teacher or even just being a friend.

From time to time we must learn to be selfish. We must put ourselves first. If we can’t stay mentally and physically healthy then we can’t deliver to the high standards we pride ourselves on. There are knock-on effects here, too. If we aren’t performing at work as a result of stress or anxiety, we inevitably bring those frustrations home, and it’s the ones we love who suffer.

It can be a challenging concept to stomach, however. I once delivered a Mindset and Wellbeing day to an energetic group of adults. They were a great crowd, and they all resonated with the concept that ‘Leaders Eat First’. We had an engaging chat around this topic.

But there’s always one.

There’s always someone who likes to make things difficult. This individual announced to the group with a wry smile on their face,

“Nah. I disagree. If there was only one meal left I would give it to my child.”

Bizarrely, this individual was the only person in the room who didn’t actually have any children, and unfortunately they missed the significance of the metaphor.

With that said, there will be times when you have to sacrifice something. It might be exercise, sleep, social time, or even your morning coffee. What’s key is preventing this behaviour becoming habitual. We must ensure we are serving to the highest possible level, and in order to do so we must make the decision to prioritise key behaviours.

How can we possibly expect to help others if we aren’t capable of doing the same ourselves?

I hope this serves as a friendly reminder that it’s OK to put your needs first, and I hope it opens your mind to what could possibly happen if we continue to dig deep holes for ourselves.

So please remember – “Leaders Eat First”

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