As a leadership consultant working in financial services organisations for the past fifteen years, I’ve been witness to the peaks and perils of leadership in high-stress and high-change environments. What’s different about this current moment? Navigating the intense pressure at work requires resilience, but this time of change is special – it also requires leaders to take a step back, to engage our most innovative and strategic thinking, and to practice a unique self-discipline that will enable us to activate our organisations for a new world.
It is in the most stressful moments that leaders are most important. In a crisis, others look to you for answers, for a calm mind and a strong perspective. They want to hear that they’re part of something larger than themselves, that you’ve got their back, that we’re all for one and one for all, and that we will help each other get through the crisis and potentially become stronger for it.
We’re up against some significant challenges.
In the four years after the initial SARS infections in Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong discovered that over 40% of SARS survivors “had an active psychiatric illness, most commonly PTSD or depression.” These disturbing research findings are the tip of the iceberg of what we will begin to see as a follow on to the global impact of Covid-19 which is ratcheting up levels of anxiety worldwide. Employee and consumer stress levels are high, which means performance is down and pressure on leadership is up.
As those of us that lead organisations start seeing increased pressure, stress, change and challenge at work, how do we prevent our own burnout and keep others on track, even with a new pandemic of mental health issues looming?
Put on Your Oxygen Mask First
It is an overused metaphor but a good one. Stabilise yourself first, then focus on others. This may mean taking some drastic steps to protect yourself, not just your physical health of which we are all hyperaware; but your mental wellbeing, your time, your energy and your availability as the demands on you become greater.
It takes more energy to engage in meetings when we are in a virtual environment, particularly when we are on video. It also takes more communication and clarification to get things done when your team is under stress. Some simple steps to preserve yourself? Build breaks into your schedule. Rest and recuperate. Set reminders on your phone to look away from the screen. Hide your face from your own view when video conferencing. Reduce multitasking when possible. Take short stretch breaks, walks, and when possible move. Make a “to not do” list. Delegate more. Stay away from those people who drain your energy. As author William S. Burroughs famously said: “If after having been exposed to someone’s presence you feel as if you’ve lost a quart of plasma, avoid that presence. You need it like you need pernicious aneamia.”
Start Where They Are, Not Where You Are
Ongoing research into resilience at work shows that at the most senior levels of organisations, leaders have greater flexibility and change-readiness than the people they lead. This is both good and bad news for those of us who are in charge.
It means that we may make assumptions that others are as comfortable with change and ambiguity as we are. We may be faster to leap to new strategies and positive messages of the future than our people are ready for, and we may miss an opportunity to acknowledge the stress of the present moment and build the trust and alignment necessary to move forward together.
Before you pivot to a new strategy or make a leap into the future, take the time for what Google researchers into productive team outcomes term “ostentatious listening”. Ostentatious listening means that we demonstrate that we are listening by repeating or paraphrasing what’s been said and making eye contact. This demonstration that you’re there to listen to others builds trust and creates buy-in for the next step – shifting into a positive future vision.
Go Back to Basics
Leaders throughout history have relied on deeply held virtues or character strengths to get them through challenging times. Taking the time to take a step back and think through who you are at your best, and who you wish to be, will ground you in something solid and enduring.
Virtues transcend our differences and unify us in the very humanising pursuit finding what is best in ourselves. They refocus us on what’s most important and get us out of survival-level behaviours. It may be that you want to call on your own fortitude, moderation, kindness or compassion as a daily practice. It’s deceptively simple, but a simple daily reminder of who you are and what you represent can make the difference between mediocre performance and making a powerful and positive impact as the leader you were born to be.