This crisis is not over. It is far from over. Even if we get a vaccine, we will be living with the implications of this mess for years to come. In the meantime, we Victorians are faced with restrictions which can impact our mental and physical well being. Hence, we need to address the subject of personal resilience. As leaders, you need to start with yourselves, because if you are deteriorating, your teams will follow. This discussion is based on 30 years of interest in the field, a plethora of papers, and hundreds of conversations with senior executives on their coping strategies.
Firstly, the fundamentals. Much of the advice on resilience addresses four basic topics: exercise; diet; social contact; and rest (Gervais, 2020). I am not going to spend much time on these as they are mostly self-evident. However, it is important not to beat yourself up if you are imperfect on any of these dimensions. If you keep focused on what you are succeeding at, you will get yourself into a virtuous cycle such as – “I have gone for a walk today, I feel good about that, feeling good motivates me to walk again…” and so on. On the other hand, if you start to “beat yourself up”, a vicious cycle can arise, whereby you are disappointed in yourself, you become demotivated, you do not exercise, and you feel worse.
The next practical theme is to change how you think about situations. As Shakespeare wrote in the play Hamlet “There is nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so.” This is the basis of an ancient philosophy known as Stoicism, which focused on how to help its practitioners live well. Seneca (a renowned Roman philosopher, statesman and businessman) said that “People are not affected by events, but by the view they have of them”. Now these may seem like extreme views, but the wisdom in them is that you can mentally reframe the way you face the challenges before you. In more modern writings, Jones (2018) advises that we can reframe anxiety as excitement. Think of your nervousness when pitching for an important deal or making a speech. It is much more fun to face them with excitement than anxiety.
Yet, our current situation is not a pitch or speech, it involves long-term stress. How would the stoics have us think differently about this predicament? Taleb (2012) is a business philosopher who has a helpful perspective here. He tells us that if we embrace our stress, yet ensure we get some rest – we can get stronger. There are two benefits from reflecting on this. Firstly, we will remember to rest. Secondly, we can reframe the challenges we face as a potential long-term benefit (because it strengthens us). Seeing the “long-term benefit” of stress is a form of reframing used by the stoics.
Bernard and Thomas (2018), picked up on this theme when they wrote about the “Crucibles of Leadership.” Their proposition was that the character of many leaders is formed in their most difficult experiences. Knowing this helps us reinterpret what we are going through. After hard times we can come out the other side as stronger, more resilient, and possibly more adaptive. It is a form of the famous maxim “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” (Nietzsche, 1888).
This stoic philosophy was utilised by some of the most resilient human beings in history. For example, Admiral Stockdale was a U.S. pilot and practicing stoic, who was taken prisoner during the Vietnam war. He was tortured both mentally and physically, but never lost hope. In doing so he applied another invaluable stoic tool – he did not worry or concern himself with matters he could not control. He could only endeavour to control his reaction to events around him. So, he managed his own mental space, where it was much harder for the prison guards to get to him. The advice “to only focus on what you can control” is incredibly valuable for us today. Doing so would remove a great deal of diffuse anxiety about our future.
Yet, we do need to rest to help us become stronger. To help rest, many leaders follow some basic yet sensible principles. Firstly, compartmentalisation: the idea being that you do not worry all the time, but to schedule specific times to worry. This frees up your mind from constant anxiety. Similarly, having a notepad by your bed so that you can write down concerns or ideas, frees you up for better sleep.
Other leaders have discovered the benefits of meditation. This is a very pragmatic activity, as it can also leave you feeling more energised and refreshed, a little bit like you have had a sleep during the day. You can get started with a guided meditation, many of which can be easily found online.
So, to be able to lead your teams, you need to have your own mental house in order. This means following the basics of exercise, diet, social contact, and rest. However, you should not beat yourself up about an imperfect performance. It also means changing the way you think about the situation you are in. If you see the stress as an opportunity to develop, if you understand that hard times might be your “crucible”, and if you only worry about what you can influence or control – then you might just reduce your background stress. Furthermore, you can also take practical steps to reduce constant anxiety such as compartmentalising your worry time and starting to meditate.
Finally, remember that looking after yourself is a duty of leadership. Keeping in good mental shape is best for your loved ones, your teams, and your businesses. So, use this time to become an even better version of yourself.