Maintaining leadership (and personal) resilience

May 4, 2022

Working as an Executive Coach with business leaders currently, in what are incredibly challenging times, one of the key questions that people are asking is how to best maintain their leadership and (personal) resilience. My tips are below and will be updated as we learn, and reflect, more on this going forward. An equivalent note has also been produced on Leading remote teams.

Resilience has many definitions– in these circumstances I have taken it to mean maintaining an ability to lead and manage effectively whilst also maintaining your own physical and mental well-being.

1. Look after yourself first, to be able to lead and look after others

The reason we are told to give ourselves oxygen first before our children in an aeroplane emergency – counter intuitive to many of us – is that we are better able to look after them by looking after ourselves first.

You cannot lead and manage others to maximum effectiveness if you are not looking after yourself personally. There are many articles being written on effective remote working – my observations are:

  • Establish a remote working routine that enables you to juggle current family challenges. People with child-care responsibilities may have just become part-time or flexible workers. Trying to email whilst home schooling a child should not be attempted. You will do neither well. Focus and divide your time.
  • Establish a remote working routine that is a routine – where possible start at a regular time with regular hours (encouraging you to ‘finish’ work) and avoid the temptation to repeatedly work long hours/late.
  • Establish a remote working routine that feels like working – if you feel better still getting dressed differently when working do so.
  • Find a protected space in the house that is your workspace (hopefully not too shared!) so that you can feel as though you are working and most importantly you can ‘leave’ work and stop.
  • Take regular breaks – you should not be sat at your computer with headphones on for hours at a time.
  • Get some fresh air – not easy now – but not impossible
  • Physical activity is vital to aid well-being – our normal routines may have changed (i.e. no gyms) – we need to replace those with new routines that enable physical activity.
  • Be realistic – you are not a primary school teacher used to teaching, or a chef used to sourcing food for 4 people 3 times a day, whilst being told to stay at home – you can only do your best!

2. Accept that these are challenging times, focus on positive action

Currently there is a strong sense of loss of control and high levels of uncertainty. Each of you will have a different personal need for a sense of control – recognise and acknowledge that many things are currently out of our control but endeavour to influence what you can. You may find it helpful to:

  • Focus on positive action. Focus on what you can do something about rather than focus on things you cannot. Establish short term goals – what needs to be done today, this week– rather than where will this business be in 4 months’ time?
  • Be realistic about what is possible. You may be leading and managing multi-stakeholders (teams, clients, shareholders, colleagues etc) whilst also trying to do the best for your families which may feel demanding for you. Be realistic in terms of what being effective looks like for you at the moment.
  • Establish a timeline in your mind to limit the impact of uncertainty. ‘We can do this for 8 weeks and then see where we are’.
  • One of the things that you are responsible for as a leader is to absorb some of the ‘pain’ of business uncertainty whilst holding adult to adult conversations with your team that ensure the reality of business is understood. Questions will come from your team and others that you don’t have the answers to and yet you may feel responsible for having answers. Answer what you can, acknowledge what you don’t know and focus yourself and your team on what you do know needs to be done now.

3. Understand and manage the impact on you, and others, of high levels of change

Adapting to change absorbs our energy. There are several models on how we respond to change. I like to use the Human Response to Change curve. It is important that you are conscious of this as leaders and managers because firstly you are going through this response to change yourself, secondly your people are also going through it – and thirdly the nature of our current situation is that we are repeatedly going through the curve as things stabilise, then change again, both externally and in our businesses.

More information is available on this model so to summarise it, or indeed remind you of it, it has been found that we go through 5 stages of response to change:

  • Shock: during this stage the individual is in a state of shock and energy/performance can temporarily increase, although that energy/performance may lack overall direction and understanding.
  • Denial: during this stage energy/performance begins to dip, and individuals continue to undertake activities in the way that they have habitually done.
  • Anger/Blame: during this stage individuals display anger or blame of others (of individuals or the situation overall), and their effective work energy/performance continues to fall.
  • Self Doubt/Blame: during this stage the energy/performance is at its lowest point with the response turned internally on the individual themselves – they are frequently quieter than they have been to date.
  • Problem Solving: during this final stage you will see an increase in energy/performance as the individual comes to terms with the change involved and seeks to put in place strategies to respond to it.

Individuals (including you) can get ‘stuck’ at various stages of the curve – sometimes for long period of times and need to undertake activities, or be led/managed in a way, that helps move forward on the curve. Their (and your) DISC profile can have an impact on how quickly people move through the curve and where they are most likely to get ‘stuck’ (see below). It can be helpful to make people aware of these stages and encourage them to diagnose where they are in terms of the curve and what would be useful from you to enable them to ‘move on’.

People can go through the 5 stages, and then may have to go through the stages again as a situation changes (which is what many of us are experiencing now). To do this takes high levels of energy and may make us feel exhausted or lethargic or ‘change weary’. We need to understand and accommodate that.

4. Understand how different people react differently to change, adapt your leadership and management style accordingly

Many of you will be familiar with the DISC or Insights profile that demonstrates behavioural preferences on the 2 continuums of having Task or People preferences; and Active vs reflective preferences. Different behavioural preferences tend to respond to change in different ways.

Broadly speaking (at a high level):

  • People with Active People based preferences (lead I in the DISC model/Yellow in Insights) may be initially enthused by change, however they can lack discipline and focus in their response and can react emotionally to change. They are most likely to get ‘stuck’ in the shock or self-doubt stages of change.
  • People with the Active Task based preferences (lead D/Red in Insights) may overcompensate with a high level of focus on the task and neglect to listen or empathise with others. They are most likely to get ‘stuck’ in the anger/blame stage of change.
  • People with the Reflective Task preference (lead C/Blue in Insights) may seek to over analyse a change and worry about the possible consequences of change. They are most likely to get stuck in the denial stage of change.
  • People with the Reflective People preference (lead S/Green in Insights) may feel over-whelmed by the scale of change and worry about the impact of it on others. They are most likely to get stuck in the shock or self-doubt stages of change.

5. Remember the power of a plan

During high levels of change we can, ironically, stop doing things that would naturally help us. ‘How can I make a plan when I don’t know what needs doing or where we will be in 3 months-time?’ You can make a plan for now – in this new world. That will encourage you to focus on positive action and move into problem-solving.

6. Worry changes nothing – manage your mind

We have different natural propensities to worry however I have never seen high levels of worry pay us back well for the energy it takes from us. Manage your mind where you can: postpone worry/establish a worry date, focus on positive action, make a plan, talk to others – these activities amongst others are much better use of your personal and leadership energy than worry.

7. Try not to compare yourself to others – you can only do your best

Social media and the internet are amazing and are allowing us to respond to this situation differently, as people and businesses, than we would have done before. It also brings into our consciousness examples of how ‘well’ other people are dealing with things. That could be their view on how to be positive, or their view on to handle a situation or indeed their complicated home-schooling plan. You are not them and you need your own approach. Look at these sources of information to learn, to reflect or to take a positive action however spot when doing that undermines your confidence in your plan and try to prevent that happening. And remember you can only do your best!

8. Remember when you wished you had time to think?

Remember when you thought ‘If only I had time to think, create something new, complete that admin that needs doing, clear out the study….’? Now some of us have more time or are likely to do so soon. The irony is that it then can be difficult to motivate ourselves to allocate time to those things we know we should be doing. With discipline, planning and focus we can use this ‘new’ time for productive things that we know need to be done. This then allows us to focus on future focused activities as well as managing today.