Over the past week or two, I’ve had 4 commonly themed conversations with 4 of my clients.  All four are forward thinking, open-minded and growth orientated leaders at the level of CEO or MD.  All 4 have fabulous teams of people in well-established businesses that have been going places.  All 4 are looking to the future and attempting to bring their teams and businesses into whatever-comes-next.  All 4 of them are “secretly” suffering from various forms of headaches, lack of sleep, inability to focus, and frustration with their apparent need to take time out in order to get their head back in the game.

Is it just them?  It would be incredible if it was.  It’s not.

The world has been on its head for the past couple of months, and for the past few weeks, we’ve all been in some degree of forced hibernation whilst the price of loo roll exceeds that of crude oil.  The pause button has been involuntarily hit on many things we’ve taken for granted as being everyday normality, and our planet has almost seemed to stop spinning.  Most of us have found enjoyment in parts of this unprecedented journey – time with family, time to slow down, time to do things we’d forgotten we needed or wanted to do.  Inevitably, though, all of our minds are acutely aware of our own survival, and continue to chew on this conundrum, even at a subconscious level.

Every time a pilot prepares themselves for a flight, one of the first questions asked internally is “Am I fit to fly?”.  This small statement has big meaning and is the way we’re taught to personally assess ourselves on every conceivable level to ascertain whether the skills we need today might be compromised in anyway.  To quote Skybrary, “A pilot must be able to perform essential job functions and not be limited because of any health and fitness risks relating to: Physiological, Cognitive, Psychological and/or Psychiatric conditions.”  We’re taught that management of these conditions is a personal responsibility, because no one else can feel what you feel; be it in your body or in your mind.

I’m not sure there is a single human being in touch with our current reality who isn’t feeling some degree of uncertainty, anxiety or stress.  It’s not just you or me.  It’s not just leaders of large teams and businesses.  It’s not just heads of schools, or board members, or team mates.  It’s every single one of us.

Right now, the reptilian part of our brains, otherwise known as our caveman brain, is going crazy.  It has been for a while now.  This is the oldest and most established part of our brain that’s responsible for our reflexes and survival instincts.  It’s the part of our brain that activates our fight or flight response and releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol into our systems so that we can run away from the sabre-toothed tiger, or stand and fight.  When we’ve had these thoughts and corresponding hormones coursing through our brains and systems for a period of time, it’s natural that we will start to feel fatigue or other physiological symptoms of stress.

We may all have had “a few weeks off”, and yet somehow we don’t feel rested.  Many of us may be chastising ourselves for having had some degree of pause and still not be feeling ready or certain about what to do next.

I’ve written numerous times about our Egos.  The psychological part of us responsible for looking out for our survival.  This part of us is always on high alert, and it requires some adult conversation inside our own heads if we’re to view our egos as helpful flag-raisers rather than allowing them to indiscriminately speak for us like they own the show.  If you’d like to read more about that, refer to my previous article entitled For Us, Or Against Us.

Those of us “in charge of” other people to any degree are further expending energy trying to juggle between our own ego fears, and our responsibility for the lives and outcomes of those other people.  This is true whether you are a parent, a teacher or a CEO.

Many of you will be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which suggests that we move up levels of the pyramid as our needs on the lower levels are met.  Kind of like playing a video game.  Only once our basic human needs for safety and food are met can we apply ourselves to such things as self-actualisation and higher thinking.  It’s supposed to be a progression, not something we cycle through on a daily basis.  Right now, we’re being asked to do enough higher thinking to predict the future, whilst still acknowledging that our fundamental survival seems to be in question, depending on what you read or listen to.

Recently, I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of what Jordan Peterson, Canadian born author of “12 Rules for Life – An Anecdote To Chaos” has to say.  Jordan Peterson is also a clinical psychologist and scholar.

To quote his latest Instagram post (jordan.b.peterson), “With everything that’s going on in the world, fear and anxiety have taken a stronghold of many people’s lives.  With that in mind, it seems logical to raise the question: How can we deal with it?

Firstly, feeling anxious is normal.  It’s a natural reaction to the awareness of vulnerability. Clinically speaking, the way to treat anxiety and fear is to lay out in detail what makes one afraid, and then to dissect it into smaller, more manageable steps to conquer.

The next task is for that person to expose themselves voluntarily and incrementally to those more manageable fears, eventually overcoming each one.  But it’s important that this challenge is accepted voluntarily; otherwise, the exposure could end up creating more harm than good.”

So, if we can acknowledge that we’re all under an incredible amount of uncertainly, unforeseen circumstances and responsibly for self and others; and that the increased and prolonged psychological and physiological effects of these things is going to take its toll on us, then where to from here?

As Jordan Peterson suggests above, the next task is for us to expose ourselves voluntarily and incrementally to our more manageable fears, eventually overcoming each one.  EMPHASIS ON THE VOLUNTARILY.  One of the fundamental realisations here is that we’re all in the same boat to a greater or lesser degree.  Every one of us is facing uncertainty, and our physiological systems are responding to that.  We’ve had “time off”, but we’re unfocused and tired on many levels.  It’s going to take concerted effort from each of us to get focused and to feel sure.  And we CAN do it…..but we needn’t feel like we’re the only ones struggling to do so.

I have written a couple of previous articles that spring to mind here.  One entitled “The Vulnerability of Strong Leadership”, and one entitled “ The Power of Imperfect Leadership”.  Both of them advocate open and transparent communication, and the empowerment you allow your teams to feel when you acknowledge your own imperfections.  When you lead with honesty, you allow those you lead to acknowledge how they’re doing too, and then none of you have to appear as if you have it all together when you don’t.

There is no way to perfectly predict the future at the moment.  It’s hard to know what will come next week.  There isn’t a single person on the planet unaware of this.  There has never been a time where open and transparent communication has been more needed.  Where compassion for each other’s fears and needs will be our leading source of connection and strength.  Where we’re very literally all in it together, and where ensuring our combined survival is something we need to all rise together to.  It will take sacrifice.  It will take communication so that we can move together rather than against each other.  It will take both personal and common responsibility.

These are the things that make us great as a human race.  These are the things that separate us from less evolved and less desirable ways of doing things.  We are tired.  We are imperfect.  We are uncertain.  We are compassionate.  We are determined.  We are feeling our way forward.  We are together.  Yes, it will take leadership.  Yes, it will take strength.  Yes, it will take inspiration.  Trying to shoulder all these things as one person over many is far harder than leading through combined empowerment.  Collective leadership encourages everyone to step forward and lead themselves in part, and we could all use the encouragement right now.

by Christen Killick

May 11th, 2020

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