Why leaders need oxygen masks too

Sometimes in life, you need someone or something to support you through difficult moments or to inspire you to have courage.

Steffan Surdek
October 11, 2021
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I was reminiscing about when I started my integral coaching course a long time ago. I am an introvert when it comes to talking about my emotions and at times the group sessions were a struggle.

This was a very intensive one-year program that was challenging emotionally. I remember what got me through it was the support of some close friends who were what I like to call my oxygen masks.

Sometimes as a leader, you may find it is very lonely at the top. Your role is steering the ship and helping the people around you in their growth, but who is supporting you? Who can you turn towards in your time of need?

This article will discuss the concept of the oxygen mask: What is it? Why do you need one? And how can you be one for someone around you?

What is an oxygen mask?

I remember in those group coaching sessions in my course, there were times I felt naked in front of everyone. Every time I would try to speak, my voice would completely break down and almost disappear. Some people thought I was putting on an act, but I actually felt very exposed. They did not realize they were seeing me raw, vulnerable and without the armour I usually wore.

What I needed in that moment was for someone to create some safety for me. I needed support to let me know this was all normal and ok to experience in the moment. What I needed was for someone to hand me an oxygen mask.

An oxygen mask can be anything that gives you some room to breathe or some support when you need it. It can be a person, a group of people, a regular practice you do or even an object.

What can an oxygen mask do for you?

For a leader, having access to different oxygen masks is very important. It is the difference between feeling lonely at the top and feeling supported.

Who do you turn to when you are struggling with a decision or need someone to bounce ideas with? An oxygen mask here could be a colleague, a friend, a coach or even a peer group.

You may turn to an oxygen mask to meet different kinds of needs:

  • You need someone to be a sounding board and help you think through a problem
  • You need someone to share what you are currently going through
  • You need someone who can relate to what you are going through and give you ideas
  • You need someone to have fun with and get your mind away from your current challenges

During my time in the coaching course, my main oxygen masks were two of my best friends that are also coaches. They listened to me as I shared my experience and challenged me to keep showing up and not hide. They gave me a balance of compassion and tough love when I needed it.

An oxygen mask can also be a practice that you do. A concrete example of this would be something like yoga or meditation. These kinds of practices can help you center and ground yourself. When you do these on a regular basis, they are a form of oxygen mask that can support you.

How can you be an oxygen mask for someone else?

You may not realize it, but you may already be an oxygen mask for someone else. Take a moment and think of the people that come to you for help or advice. What kind of support do you provide for them? How do you show up for them?

As a coach, I often find myself in the role of the oxygen mask for my clients. When they are struggling with their teams, they feel a sense of relief being able to talk about it with me. They walk away from our conversation with less frustration and new ideas to try.

There are times when opportunities to be an oxygen mask come to you in an unplanned way. You may be on a call with someone and get the feeling they really need to talk about something. Even if they do not mention anything directly, you can still ask if they need support.

Remember there are times when being an oxygen mask means you just need to be there and listen to somebody. It can be as simple as that!


The oxygen mask is one of those leadership concepts you may already know about but did not have a clear name for. As a leader, it is normal for you to need support as well.

An oxygen mask can be a person but it can also be a practice that you do on a regular basis. This practice supports you by helping you ground and calm yourself when you need it.

Who are the people and the practices you turn to when you need support? Who are the people who turn to you when THEY need an oxygen mask? How do you detect and give them what they are looking for from you?

Knowing all this, how are you going to create space to go get your oxygen mask when you feel the need to?