Real Leaders

Leading During a Crisis: How to Maintain Your Best Self

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Millions of leaders around the world are being confronted with a daunting task – leading their teams, businesses, functions, and organization during COVID-19. Here are some tips on how to do this effectively.

Leading a 21st-century company already presented an arguably unprecedented challenge, given the increasing complexity and accelerating rate of change. However, COVID-19 is dramatically increasing the demand for leadership capacity, from extreme economic uncertainty to stress, anxiety, frustration, and an extraordinary disruption in daily living reality. To lead through this historic moment effectively, leaders need to show up as the very best versions of themselves – calm, confident, decisive, optimistic, and energetic.

But leaders are human beings too. They are flesh and blood, and experience emotions and stress like anyone else. The good news is that they also have the inherent ability to rise in the face of significant challenges. And we now have access to scientifically based insights, skills, and strategies that can allow us to dramatically enhance our ability to maintain the optimal state of mind that enables successful leadership behaviors.

It all starts with self-care. Perhaps an essential commitment a leader can make to showing up as the best version of yourself is expressed by this approach: “Put your mask on first before putting a mask on someone else.” Even as a successful and experienced leader, your nervous system has its limits. And, regardless of how much “grit” you can muster and how generous your intentions are to set your well-being aside while attending to others, if (and when) you do cross beyond your limits, the cost can be considerable. It could take you into a mental state that usually results in the exact opposite of good leadership behaviors. And the accumulation could also lead to a severe toll on your mental, emotional, and physical well-being, including your immune system.

That said, it is essential that when leading through a crisis that you have a realistic and practical plan to: 1) process the high levels of stress as the day unfolds 2) Boost high-performance emotions such as optimism, calm and confidence, and 3) increase your capacity for concentration, creative thinking, and effective communication. To ensure your plan is realistic and sustainable, follow these three practices. All are easy to learn and can be achieved in a total of 20-30 minutes throughout the day. Many can be performed in 2-5 minute increments:

Move and Stretch. I was intentional here in not using the word “exercise.” This is not necessarily about hopping on a Peloton or streaming an intensive workout. Even short intervals of movement practiced inside your house or apartment can have numerous benefits. Neuroscience has now proven that moving our bodies releases a series of neurotransmitters into our brain — serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine — that expand our ability to absorb and release stress, increase our capacity to concentrate and think creatively and create feelings of self-confidence, self-efficacy, and safety. So much of business interaction is telecommunication now. So when a meeting is a phone call, consider walking as you take the call. If you are at home with your kids and taking a break to spend time with them, perhaps engage in an activity that facilitates you to move in some way. Get creative: there are so many ways you can incorporate some movement into your day. 

Practice Gratitude Rituals. Research about gratitude reveals that this activity is not just pop-psychology but grounded in hard science. By engaging in intentional gratitude exercises, we can release stress, increase optimism, energy, and enthusiasm, strengthen our immune system, and enhance our interpersonal skills — all critical factors for leading in a crisis. The best part is that all of these benefits can be gained in only minutes: choose to focus on something we are grateful for. As humans, we are not wired toward gratitude in the best of times (sad but true). But during a crisis, we might be even more apt to focus only on all that’s wrong. That takes an enormous negative toll on our mental and emotional state. Consider leveraging one of the many gratitude apps, a gratitude journal, or perhaps placing a picture in a strategic place to build in moments of gratitude that break up your day. I can assure you: you won’t regret it.

Practice Slow, Controlled Breathing. Mindfulness and meditation have certainly shifted from new age to the business mainstream. When leading in a crisis, take a few minutes once or twice a day to practice some controlled breathing. Doing so will instantly release stress, allows you re-center, and remove cognitive overload. It provides a sense of calm and enables you to be far more present when engaging with your team. Many apps provide short guiding breathing exercises. Or, try this strategy used by our military: Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit. Observe and count your breath to the cadence of 4 seconds (in-breath), and 4 seconds (out-breath). Repeat four times. 

As we search for silver linings in these extraordinarily difficult circumstances, one is that working from home or in a very sparsely populated office should facilitate these kinds of micro-breaks. I recommend starting your day with one of these practices, working in another around mid-morning, and then again mid-afternoon. Remember that stress and emotions like fear and anger continuously accumulate throughout the day if they do not have a release. By committing to these simple behaviors, you will ensure you maintain your best self while engaging with your colleagues during the day. And you will also be the best version of yourself when fully re-engaging with your loved ones at the end of it — not to mention giving your Immune system a much-needed boost.

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