Developing resilient leadership – get out of your head!

The last few months at work have been what I would call slightly challenging, both physically and mentally. With a large amount of travel and time away from home, new projects to develop (one being a resilience programme), and lots of ongoing client work – the impact of these have caused me to reflect on how I’d been performing and coping. As I began to slow down and pause, and I approached the Christmas break, it occurred to me that the pace of work has meant I haven’t been true to myself and my values.

I haven’t been following what I know helps me sustain my energy, adapt to challenges and recover and thrive.  I’d been feeling tired, not making healthy food choices, my sleep was disrupted and I’d been struggling to feel motivated.

I’d been on the treadmill of life and not paying attention to my feelings!

The turning point for me was in a recent personal training session where I noticed I was struggling to find energy and feeling disappointed in my results. My trainer Yoseph wisely observed, “Jackie you are an intellectual person – you are working hard right now and that means sifting through all the things going on in your head to really be able to connect and listen to your body.”

My busyness was stopping me from being self-aware. By that I don’t just mean emotionally but also physically.

Self-awareness in Emotional Intelligence (EI) terms is paying attention to feelings, intuitions, emotions and where they physically reside in the body. Emotions are physiological; when I am happy I feel more energised but when I am tired or sad I feel low on energy, heavy and perhaps stiff and achy. Can you relate to any of these feelings?

Focusing on and understanding our self-awareness, our body and its reaction to emotions can really help us build resilience. Our physical and emotional state is an early warning system but when we are busy or caught up in unhelpful defensive habits we often do not pay attention to how we are really feeling. We ignore our low energy levels, plough on bolstered by coffee, sugary foods or even wine in the evening!

Organisational cultures often do not encourage people to use their emotions in the workplace either. But emotions are part of us and are always with us, we cannot hide them and when our behaviour does not match our emotional state we leak! Dr Alan Watkins in his book Coherence states, “Emotions must be understood if the leadership journey is to be navigated successfully. Individuals who become more emotionally and socially intelligent will significantly improve results”.

I have observed this pattern not only in myself but also in many leaders at all levels, in both in the public and private sector.  A fast pace, a feeling of constant change, managing large workloads and virtual relationships with dispersed teams are all causing feelings of stress and increased pressure resulting in higher levels of burnout. The Health and Safety Executive report states that 12.5 million days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17. And the NHS approximate’s that the cost of stress-related absenteeism is £425 million a year.

So why do we all continue to operate like this when we know that in order to perform effectively, feel satisfied and happy and ultimately lead others, that we need to start by looking after ourselves first? As the airlines tell us, if the plane is in trouble and the oxygen masks come down, put your own mask on before helping others.

Resilient leadership is just like this request.

It starts with our mindset as individual leaders – what we choose to focus our thoughts and energy on, how we look after our well-being, how much time and investment we make in our support networks and relationships, and what is important and motivates us to keep going. Ultimately how we pay attention to how we are feeling. All these factors will really impact on our resilience levels when times are challenging.

Habits and patterns drive our behaviour, so by choosing a habit to focus on our self-awareness, notice our emotional state, label our feelings, we are able to make more appropriate choices in our behaviour and therefore look after ourselves so we may better lead others. Forming and maintaining new habits are an integral part of developing EI.

EI research suggests that the way to break a habit is to focus on doing one small action consistently for at least 21-days.  For example, if I want to improve my self-awareness, for 21 consecutive days I should spend 10 minutes to ‘check-in’ with myself to identify how I am feeling.  The emotional brain – being ‘black and white’ in its processing – cannot cope with emotions being ‘a little bit important’ and faced with a new habit that clearly supports emotions ‘being important’ it will begin to reconfigure itself.  Choose to take some action and you will change, choose to do nothing and, well, you can guess what will happen…

I am off on a holiday at Christmas that will help my renewal and resilience but I am also going to follow Yoseph’s advice and get out of my head and into my body. My new 21-day habit will be to check in every day and ask myself how I am feeling, using the JCA-Feelings-wheel.

What will your 21-day habit be?

I wish you all a happy Christmas and a resilient New Year!

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