Leadership in Uncertain Times

Updated: Mar 20, 2020

By Mia Handshin

I thought I’d be immune. But I caught it too. It is, after all, pretty virulent right now.

Watching news of essentials “stockpiling” last week with curiosity and, admittedly, also some judgement, I was determined to evade the panic.

But after becoming aware of the nationwide cancellation of mass gatherings on Friday last week, I had a knee-jerk reaction to my sons' request to attend the Primary School Family BBQ that evening.

Fuelled by anticipatory anxiety (or, perhaps, an over abundance of caution), I told them I was feeling reluctant to take them as previously planned. Understandably, they were crushed. Mr 6 just wanted to listen to his teacher sing and Mr 11 to hang out with mates. I felt like a colossal party-pooper!

After taking a deep breath, getting present with my body and taking stock of my internal state, I recognized that I'd just had a fear-based reaction. So I took the opportunity to "balance my thinking" and agreed to take the boys along to the BBQ with some precautions in place.

Whether as a parent, or in any leadership context, it's never easy to admit that we may have gotten it wrong at first. Ultimately, however, this experience, and my reflection on it, was a gift because it generated a whole lot more compassion. For all of humanity right now. Plus a valuable new perspective about what's going on around me.

At LeadersHP we've resolved to offer some “thought leadership” at this complex and curious time, on how we can all take leadership from the inside out, and in particular, boost our physical and psychological immune systems.

This is about supporting ourselves so that we can continue to serve and support others. Be that as parents, partners or as global citizens. Lifting our consciousness in leadership so that we can be the leaders we want to see in the world right now.

If you’ve noticed that you’re feeling a little off-centre, a bit wired or edgier right now, it can help to understand some of the brain science behind it.

In our work with leaders and teams, we regularly share the research referred to in “Managing with the Brain in Mind” written by Founding President of the Neuro Leadership Institute, David Rock. Rock explains that when we experience something unexpected, a part of our brain linked to our survival instinct registers a potential threat. Our brains prefer the efficiency of knowing what’s next.

“Uncertainty registers as an error, gap, or tension: something that must be corrected before one can feel comfortable again…Not knowing what will happen next can be profoundly debilitating because it requires extra neural energy…diminishes memory, undermines performance, and disengages people from the present.”

Having awareness about what was going on internally for me at the time I was making decisions about the Family BBQ enabled me to lead myself out of reaction and into response.

So, in the midst of this collective uncertainty, what can we do to support and “soothe our systems” so that we can return to balance and “be present” for ourselves and those around us?

Practising mindfulness is a key strategy that we can employ during times of stress, as well as apply over time to develop greater resilience. It's what helped me as I was mentally racing ahead to all the possible future consequences of taking my boys to the event. People who are higher in psychological resilience are also healthier; have lower blood pressure, sleep better, and have stronger immune function.

We recommend a quick and powerful mindfulness exercise using your body to “anchor” you in the present moment. Here’s how-to:

Inside Out tip #1: Come to Your Senses

Become aware of the space you are in right now. Notice 3 things you can see around you. Name them, like a whisper in your mind, 3 times.

Next, close your eyes and notice 3 things you can hear. Name them. 3 times.

Then notice and name 3 things you can feel; such as your clothes touching your skin, your body being supported by the chair you’re on, or internal sensations. Name them too.

Being present with our bodies is vital right now. In our team, we’ve spoken about how much more mindful we will all be from now on, because of the context that's been created by Corona virus, about the impact we can have on ourselves, and potentially others, when we fail to take the time to rest when we’re ill.

Despite confronting this lesson earlier in my life, I’ve become painfully aware over the last week or so of how I’ve continued to be driven by an unhealthy “soldier-on” mentality. This has involved me coming to work at times when I'm not 100% well. It's propelled me to continue “doing” and pushing my body when it's signalling a need to stop. Sound familiar?

Looking at my beliefs around this, patterns of thinking and behaviour, then setting new intentions and making them explicit with my team will help me, as a leader, to be accountable for making more conscious choices in the future.

Another way to bolster our resilience is to intentionally generate “positive emotions”. Joy, gratitude, love, wonder, awe all release awesome, feel-good, neurochemicals which counter the impacts of stress. It can seem like a tough task to invoke these feelings when we are anxious or stretched. But according to Psychologist Barbara Friedrickson, developing the capacity to shift our state can be incredibly beneficial because they produce “the fuel for resilience”.

Inside Out Tip #2: Focus on Appreciation

Adopt the habit of actively focusing on what went well or what you've appreciated each day. Even the little things! A kind word. An unexpected message. Hot cuppa.

Reflect on why they went well, how they mattered, who contributed.

Aim to come up with 3 things each day as a way of positively leading your thinking.

Finally, changing our minds about stress can also help strengthen our bodies. Thought leadership in its truest sense.

Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s profound TED Talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend” is worth watching. In essence, Kelly shares leading research that when we change our minds about stress, and consider it in a more positive light, we can change our body's response to it.

She also explains that, in addition to producing adrenaline and cortisol when stressed, we also release oxytocin. This is typically known as the bonding hormone. It makes us more empathetic and primes us to want to connect with loved ones. Apparently when we act on the urge to connect when stressed, our system releases even more oxytocin. The benefit being that oxytocin is a key resilience-fuelling neurochemical which also happens to be responsible for strengthening our heart muscle.

While we need to keep our social distance from one another right now, it doesn't mean we have to disconnect completely. But we have the chance to ensure that this goes beyond the virtual interactions that we have to be more reliant on at present.

According to Professor of Neural and Systems Complexity Fiona Kerr, when we achieve “retinal eye-lock” with someone who’s offering a warm, empathetic gaze, we receive a calming boost of oxytocin. This simple act of connection also supports our immune systems to fire. Check out Professor Kerr's TED Talk and report, Look Up.

Inside Out Tip # 3: Reframe Stress and Consciously Connect

Look up. Find a pair of eyes. Look into them.

Aim to offer real presence to at least 3 people each day. It will help them, especially if they are feeling anxious, and it will also help you.

In summary, we've shared these 3 Inside-Out Tips including how-to:

1) Become Present through Mindfulness

2) Focus on Appreciation

3) Reframe Stress and Consciously Connect

While there are layers of complexity and challenge facing all of us to varying degrees on the planet right now there are also gifts and opportunities in this time.

It's going to take conscious, inside-out leadership to find and share what these are, whilst also acknowledging, with compassion, the inevitable fears, losses and hardships being experienced.

What's being asked of you in leadership right now?

How do you want to step up, show up?

And, how is this complex and uncertain time offering you an opportunity to adapt and evolve the way you lead?

We hope you take the opportunities. And find the gifts.

It’s certainly time.

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