Leadership Insights

The Art of Being a Resilient Leader

The Art of Being a Resilient Leader

Wednesday 2nd January 2019
Mike Mullins

When asked about the root of her success Victoria Pendleton, Gold Medal winner at London's 2012 Olympics, put it down to "marginal gains". Thinking of everything that goes into riding a bike competitively and then improving each element by 1%, to get a significant shift in overall performance.

This included better hand washing techniques and athletes taking their own pillows and bedding to hotels, when competing, to ensure improved sleep.

Like Victoria Pendleton we can think of ourselves as "leadership athletes", focusing on the "marginal gains" we can make to how we sustain and renew our well - being and performance as leaders when under pressure.

In this article I'd like to explore:

  • The nature of "power stress" that can affect leaders in today's fiercely competitive environment
  • The six factors for resilience leaders can consciously work on to maintain their well-being
  • How regularly taking time to renew your energy can help leaders be at their best for themselves and their teams
  • The four fundamental human energies
  • How you spend and renew your energy as a leader

The nature of "power stress"

As a leader do you find yourself having to make crucial business decisions in the midst of increasing complexity and ambiguity, whilst facing a mounting workload, a lack of resource and growing market competition?

If you're not careful about managing your well-being, these kind of relentless challenges can leave you emotionally drained, feeling at times like an imposter, about to be found out by all those around you. This is known as "power stress" and it's an increasingly common experience for many UK business leaders.

Pressure can be positive. It helps us to perform at our best but chronic stress is unhealthy. It doesn't just get in the way of leaders' ability to connect, build trust and solve problems creatively it's also a major cause of physical and mental illness: cardiovascular disease, obesity, dementia, anxiety and depression.

You can only be effective as a leader if you start by taking caring of yourself and making sure you're at your best.

Six factors for resilience

Stress is about our perceived ability to cope with the challenges we face. It's subjective. Leaders can be in the same context but psychologically experience it in radically different ways. For some it may be exciting and enjoyable, for others routine and for others anxiety, even fear provoking.

How we experience events is down to our, often unconscious, beliefs about ourselves as leaders, the people we lead and the world.

All the latest research suggests resilience is partly inherited but can also be learned. Here are six factors you can work on as a leader to improve your ability to perform under pressure:

Awareness Resilient leaders are aware of what causes them stress. They own their emotional reactions and notice how the behaviour of others triggers them. Awareness gives you choice and the power to manage your feelings.

How do you know when you're stressed? What are the psychological, physiological or behavioural signs?

Acceptance Trying to rid yourself of pain, discomfort, distress will only make you more stressed. A better alternative paradoxically is to accept, to allow the experience. To be mindfully compassionate towards yourself. Acceptance helps you remain open, flexible and better able to solve the problems causing you stress.

How can you develop your capacity to compassionately notice and accept your feelings of stress?

Problem solving Under pressure negative emotion significantly narrows our ability to think logically and creatively and we end up relying on limited past experience and gut instinct to solve complex problems. Resilient leaders have developed a capacity for rational reflection and evaluation when under pressure.

How can you develop your ability to problem solve and be creative under pressure?

Social connection Leaders with strong social connections for example being part of sports clubs, book groups, choirs or faith communities, have higher levels of resilience.
Social connections allow leaders to share their worries, realise they're not alone, get new perspectives, receive advice on how to solve issues and also be distracted from ruminating about the past, or worrying about the future.

Do you have the depth and breadth of social connections you need to allow you to thrive as a leader?

Locus of Control A strong internal locus of control, the belief that the attitude and behaviour you adopt has a direct impact on the outcomes you get is key to leadership resilience.

How strong is your personal locus of control? Try to notice how your attitude and actions make a difference to the outcomes your get.

Asking for help Being resourceful is important to resilience but so is having the self-awareness and courage to ask for help when feeling under pressure. This is part of the skill of being assertive. The ability to state one's own feelings and needs in relationships whilst respecting the needs and feelings of others.

Recognising we can't accomplish everything alone and need the support of others. A healthy vulnerability is key to resilient, trust - based leadership.

How can you cultivate a balanced vulnerability in your leadership to build trust with followers and your own resilience?

Taking time to renew your energy to be at your best as a leader

As leaders if we want to perform at our full potential and sustain our well-being, we need to regularly renew our energy. That is work from a place where we are rested and grounded. The danger is that we get too busy running around on empty trying to "achieve", depleting our spiritual, physical, emotional and mental energy.

The human brain can focus effectively for 60 - 90 minutes before needing to rest, or do a different activity. This is the ultradian rhythm. We are designed to oscillate between spending and renewing energy.

As Victoria Pendleton might say life is a series of sprints not a marathon. Leaders that have the discipline to intermittently renew their energy have higher productivity, creativity and levels of connection with their followers.

Imagine a four-box model to help you explore how you spend and renew energy your energy. There are four zones: Performance (spending energy positively), Survival (spending energy negatively), Renewal (recouping energy positively) and Burn out (recouping energy negatively).

Let me give myself as an example of how we might show up in each energy zone: When I'm in the Performance Zone; I'm at my best and in flow, productive, creative with ideas and solutions, present and connected to others, noticing how they are and able to have fun and joke.

When I'm in the Renewal Zone; first, I notice I'm losing energy and take action and change activity, or rest. I spend time with good friends and family. I create space for myself to reflect, pray or meditate. I focusing on recreational hobbies like writing, reading or sculpture, or take exercise like cycling and swimming.

And when I'm in the Survival Zone; I'm driving myself beyond the performance zone, so I'm tired. I'm often not listening properly. I have difficulty focusing so I might have to re-read a document before I get a sense of it. I get easily distracted. I might start to withdraw from others and I might feel irritable, or critical of others and self - righteous

Finally, when I'm in the Burn Out Zone; when I've depleted my energy and trying unsuccessfully to rest, I'm often find myself in front of TV BBCI Player or Netflix binge watching box sets. Or taking in too much caffeine and eating lots of comfort food like cake and chocolate

Before you start to reflect on how you are in each of these zones. I want to say a few words about what I mean by energy.

Four Fundamental Human Energies

There are four fundamental human energies leaders need to fuel ourselves if we are to be resilient, thrive and able to release the best in others. They are:

Spirit: Your sense of purpose and meaning in life. Being aware of and living in alignment with your core values what's important to you, what brings you alive. Being clear about what you want out of life.

Mind: Your ability to mentally focus, problem solve and be creative. Avoiding multitasking or switching. Prioritising, focusing on the important that build long term capability. Learning to be mindful.

Heart: As humans we have an evolutionary bias towards the negative. We focus on threats and problems. So how do we reset that imbalance and attend to the positive in our lives and nurture positive emotion which builds and broadens and ability to be creative and develop new skills?

Body: Regular exercise, eating healthily, taking breaks. Drinking water life's natural anti - depressant, getting adequate sleep 7-8 hours per day (long term sleep deprivation causes dips in performance, anxiety, depression, obesity and dementia)

Imagine your four sources of energy as four batteries. Try drawing your four batteries: Spirit, Mind, Heart and Body with a scale of 0-100 down the side. Think about where each of your energies are right now. Estimate the energy levels for each on a scale of 0-100 where 100 is completely full.

How do you spend and renew your energy as a leader?

Now reflecting on your energy levels and thinking about each of the four energy zones reflect on your levels of resilience as a leader using these six questions:

1. What are you doing when you notice you're in this zone?

2. How do you feel physically / emotionally when you're in this zone?

3. What are the signs / triggers that move you into this zone? Where do you first feel them?

4. Roughly how much time, as a percentage, are spending in each zone?

5. In the renewal zone what are you currently doing to renew your spiritual, mental, emotional and physical energy. What else could you do to establish daily, monthly, quarterly renewal practices?

6. What can you do as a leader to help your teams and colleagues notice and manage their energy levels?

For further information about building resilient leadership contact Mike Mullins Consulting Ltd about programme and coaching options available.