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How to Handle a Personal Crisis as a Female CEO When a catastrophe happens in your life, it's important to take care of yourself so your business can thrive.

By Sue Hawkes

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Joerg Steffens | Getty Images

Female business leaders are seen as tough, confident women who can handle anything. This is true, but what happens when a true catastrophe happens in your life? I had this experience in 2008. The economy had crashed so my two businesses were failing, my house was in foreclosure, my marriage was falling apart and in quick succession my mother, brother and father passed away. My grief was affecting every aspect of my life, including my work. This is quite common; the "Grief Index: Hidden Annual Costs of Grief in America's Workplace" study found that 85 percent of management-level decision-makers surveyed said that their decision-making ranked from "very poor" to "fair" in the weeks or months after a grief-inducing event.

Related: 'We Had a Feeling of Failure And Guilt' Says This Founder Who Shut Down Her Company and Relaunched With the Help of Her Mentor

Dealing with circumstances like these can feel especially difficult as women because we are often also the ones who run the household. In fact, a new study by Springer journal found that "Canadian women of all ages still tend to do more household chores than their male partners, no matter how much they work or earn in a job outside the home." As I worked to get through these situations, I realized that I couldn't perform at my best while my personal life was in turmoil. Leaders must be at their best mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually in order to bring their best to the workplace.

When I was in my darkest place I realized that I needed to make some serious changes in my life or they would start happening without my consent. The practices below helped me conquer my catastrophe and get back to a whole, healthier self.

Lower the bar.

We've all heard over and over again that we should exercise three times a week. But, does anyone really do this when they have a family and big career? I started to question this advice, and that is when the philosophy of lowering the bar first came to me. It may sound trite, but as someone whose identity is wrapped up in achieving and always raising the bar, this was a foreign concept. Life was giving me more than even I could handle, and I realized I needed to pare back to a goal I could actually hit, even if it meant doing less than the suggested amount.

Lowering the bar helped me re-wire my brain to dedicate that time to myself each week, and every week that I got my one workout in I felt like I was winning. This feeling of accomplishment was necessary when it felt like I was failing at everything else. After a time, I began hitting my goal consistently and often felt so successful after having hit it that I'd add a second workout into my week. Now I have a healthier lifestyle than ever and am committed to still improving.

This time in life also taught me how necessary exercise is as a stress reliever for leaders. Now I exercise just as much for the mental and attitude benefits as I do for the physical. In fact, "physical activity is the best way to improve cognitive function," says certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist Shay de Silva. For me, it's not optional; I need exercise in order to be a better leader and stay focused.

Related: Here's Why Women Take Less Vacation Time Than Men -- and What to Do About It

Gain perspective.

Going through such a challenging time allowed me to have better perspective for the rest of the challenges I've come across. In reality, health catastrophes are the only problems that are fully out of our control. Unlike illness, business or financial problems can be solved or at least mitigated through action and resources.

I was recently the victim of a phishing scandal and had over six figures of income stolen from me. This could have been debilitating for our small business, but as an entrepreneur, I knew that I would earn my way out of it and find a solution. Because I had experienced so much worse during the sickness and death of my family, I was able to quickly go into action mode.

I also experienced incredible support from my peer group, which I recommend all business leaders find. Beth Miller, leadership advisor and coach, echoes this, stating "Peer advisory groups ... create an environment where individuals can find and give support, solve problems and achieve their goals among like-minded people who face similar challenges."


When catastrophe hits, all of your energy is consumed by that event and trying to mitigate it. You don't have extra energy to spend on difficult people or additional tasks and activities that leave you feeling drained. Simplify your life by removing the people, things, activities and negative messages around you. Recognize that you can't do it all and that cutting back will leave you with more energy to spend on healing yourself.

Related: It's OK to Not Be OK

Learn to ask for help.

The most important and difficult thing you can do during a catastrophe is to ask for help. Coincidentally, it's when we feel most helpless that we want to ask for help the least and need the most help! Leaning on others and getting support (emotionally, financially or with chores/errands) will help create space for you to work on healing yourself and overcoming the catastrophe. As leaders we are used to helping others but not great at asking and accepting help. Over the years I've realized that denying help from someone else robs them of the good feeling they would get by supporting me. Next time someone asks, "How can I help?" be honest and tell them what you need.

Start a gratitude journal.

During times of catastrophe it can feel that there is very little to be grateful for. This is when you must practice gratitude the most. Keeping a gratitude journal is a great way to do this, especially because it takes the effort out of journaling -- no more wondering what to write about! Each night before you go to sleep or every morning when you get up, write down 20 things you are grateful for. Doing this practice either starts or ends your day in a positive state. This state is what your actions flow from and is what keeps you happy and healthy. If you don't like to write, try a talk-to-text option on your mobile phone. You won't believe how much your perspective changes in just a few weeks and how that enables you to move forward.

Delegate and elevate.

Delegating and elevating allows you to identify what tasks you 1. love and are great at, 2. like and are good at, 3. don't like and are good at and 4. don't like and are not good at. Dividing everything you do (both at home and at work) into these four quadrants will give you a good picture of how you spend your time and what tasks you need to delegate. The goal of the practice is to get to only doing things you either love and are great at or like and are good at. This practice is incredibly useful for any leader, but for those dealing with catastrophe it is crucial. Delegating the tasks that you do not enjoy will allow you to feel less stress and free up time to focus on moving forward and doing the things that are your highest and best use.

We leaders need to understand that self-care is not a selfish act, especially amidst a catastrophe. While it may be tempting to simply put on your CEO face and push through what's going on, catastrophes don't work that way. You must invest in yourself so that you can take care of others and become your whole self again. This may take a little while, so be patient with yourself. Conquering my catastrophe was a year-long process where I felt just a little bit better every day; that encouraged me to stay strong and keep going.

Sue Hawkes


Sue Hawkes helps CEOs and their leadership teams succeed. As a bestselling author, keynote speaker, certified EOS implementer, certified management effectiveness coach, WPO chapter chair and award-winning seminar leader, Hawkes brings over 25 years of experience to her clients.

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