Five Essentials for your Leadership Survival Toolkit
Updated: Jan 11
Just a week ago we entered Lockdown 3.0. Although this time we are better prepared, more experienced and with a vaccine rollout underway which provides some light at the end of the tunnel, it's tough for leaders and teams alike. The imposition of the current restrictions just after Christmas in what is traditionally a tough period in any year, has caught a lot of people by surprise.
My friend Chris likens it to the last third of running a marathon- Harder than hard. The end is in sight, but too far away to provide any relief from the exhaustion we're feeling.
But lead we must. We have to step up. In Michael Rosen's immortal words:
"We can't go over it. We can't go under it. Oh no! We've got to go through it."
What can we do to get through the next period as successful leaders? I recommend five things that have kept me going as I navigated crises and challenging times during my leadership career.
"The mind is its own place, and in it self. Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." John Milton - Paradise Lost
The way your mind affects your life is a choice. I say that as someone who has had a fair share of medically diagnosed anxiety, depression and stress. Mental illness makes it much harder, but I have found it true that we all have a unique ability as humans to stand back from our thoughts and decide what we will accept, and what we will reject. We really aren’t at the mercy of our thinking. This begins with deciding how your day will go.
Before you allow the news, social media, work worries or the attitude of a family member or colleague to do so, you can and should set your mind up for the day. Apps like Calm can be helpful. Reading a philosophical or religious text is great, as is journalling or listening to an uplifting podcast.
During the day, establish a habit of 'catch, challenge, change' for any anxious or negative thoughts that come your way.
Establish a gap for yourself between stimulus and response, and use the principles of neuroplasticity to rewire your brain with positive affirmations. Remember - your BELIEF about a situation shapes your ACTIONS which determine your RESULTS. If you allow rubbish in, you'll get rubbish out.
Dealing with uncertainty
Worry can be helpful. The feelings you get that cause you to address something that's wrong, that needs fixing - these are good. But what makes worry turn to toxic anxiety is a cycling of negative thoughts that you fail to address.
Worry will cripple you and your team unless you manage it. Here are some key principles:
Book a time to worry about things that you have to. Every time the issue comes to mind, remind yourself that you have a time set aside to think about it, and move on.
'War room' with your team. Set a side a time and a space in which to bring all the available information together, to plan, strategise, and make decisions. Then 'shut the door', get out and get on, having arranged a time when you'll review again, whether that's this afternoon, tomorrow, next week or next month.
Get into the habit of only discussing things that are within your circle of control (or perhaps influence) in meetings, and call time on the team talking for too long about things that no-one can predict or affect.
Journal. I've found writing down my thoughts is not only therapeutic, it also helps me to gain perspective. As Joan Didion said:
"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking..."
Give yourself a chance
After a long and stressful day, it's tempting to put off the things that we know will help us keep fit and healthy and succumb to self-medication with alcohol, junk food and a Netflix binge. I know, I have been there many times. And if it's a one off or infrequent tough day, we can get away with it. But this is a marathon, and our bodies and minds will not be our best friends and may simply give up if we fail to look after them. It's not rocket science - sufficient sleep, exercise, hydration, a balanced diet, the discipline to stay off blue screens before bed... But that doesn't mean it's easy!
My kids loved the first Lion King movie, and like many people, my favourite scene is when Mufasa speaks to his son Simba from beyond the grave and says:
"Look inside yourself, you are more than what you have become"
The truth is that we are all a work in progress. But we too often forget the many things we have achieved in the past and focus on our failings, perceived weaknesses and shortcomings.
There's an exercise I do every quarter which really helps with this. It's from the book 'The Game Plan' by Steve Bull. It involves writing the achievements that you're proud of, the times when you felt your most confident on a sheet which has a series of mountain peaks printed on it. The first time you do this, you'll obviously track back several years. Each quarter, even if you add just one thing, you're building your arsenal of 'Confidence Peaks' that you can pull out and remind yourself of when your mind is pulling you down.
Finally, the most solid and inspirational guide I have been grateful for in tough times over many years is Admiral James Stockdale. The 'Stockdale Paradox' was brought to a wide audience by Jim Collins in 'Good to Great'. It draws on Stockdale's experiences over 7 years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam war. During this horrific period, Stockdale was repeatedly tortured and had no reason to believe he'd make it out alive. The Stockdale paradox essentially means - balance realism with optimism, because too much of either can be destructive:
"You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."
The passage in Collins' book where he interviews Stockdale is worth quoting:
"Who didn't make it out?"
"Oh, that's easy," he said. "The optimists."
"The optimists? I don't understand," I said, now completely confused,
given what he'd said a hundred meters earlier.
"The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by
Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then
they'd say,'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and
Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas
again. And they died of a broken heart."
The lockdown will come to an end. The pandemic will eventually be over. So many of the things that we miss right now will become a part of our lives again. To get there, we'll need both optimism and realism as leaders, and a few essentials in our survival toolkit.