All posts by scanlandk

Leadership Resilience, Especially in a Pandemic

Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept it and try to put together something that’s good. ~Elizabeth Edwards

Resilience. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, likely because we are living through a pandemic. I’m consequently spending time looking for leaders who will guide their organizations through this season and come out the other side even stronger. Leaders who will model resilience.

In what I’ve been reading, I now have a bit different view as to what resilience is, and is not. Resilience is about managing expectations and focusing energy on what we can control. It is not necessarily about being “tough,” although Merriam-Webster would differ and considers “tough” synonymous with resilient.

I believe that resilience is proactive, and I typically think of “tough” as being more reactive. Being resilient means you are always preparing, developing a mindset that keeps you resilient. It’s not something you work towards, and then stop working because you’ve accomplished “resilience.” It’s more like the athlete who gets in top physical condition, and then keeps working to maintain that physical condition. That feels very proactive to me. Tough, on the other hand, feels more like the athlete who maybe doesn’t prepare as much and just endures the pain really well.

How do we become more resilient, especially as leaders? I’m going to begin to unpack what I’m learning. Here’s a start.

Keep Your Expectations Low

Keeping expectations low may sound like I’m saying be more pessimistic. I wouldn’t go that far. It means that unrealistic expectations can lead to profound disappoint when things don’t materialize like we had hoped. The problem is that being overly optimistic limits our motivation to take decisive action to actually make our situation better.

We need to communicate somewhat paradoxical thinking by (a) believing and saying that eventually things will work out or get better, AND (b) accept and say that it could be difficult for some time before that happens. Then get to work on making things even a little better in the present.

Focus on What You Can Control

Here are two examples from the NeuroLeadership Institute that illustrate why focusing on what you can control is so important to resilience. A sense of control over one’s workspace showed over a 30% increase in people’s performance. A sense of control over room layout halved the death rate in one study in an elderly person’s home. Focusing on what you can control matters.

As a leader, what are you communicating right now? Are you talking about all of the things that we can’t control because of the pandemic. Are you telling people to just “wait it out”? Or, are you intentionally talking about and giving people work to focus on that gives them a sense of control? What are you modeling? Are you, the leader, focusing your attention on things you can control?

Be a resilient leader through the pandemic. Start by managing expectations without being overly optimistic and focus your organization on what you can control. Resilience is leading with bold grace.

Leaders and Suicide

What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation. ~Glenn Close

Leaders and suicide. You might be thinking, “wow, that’s an awfully dark topic,” and that’s the point. Just as Glenn Close stated, “mental health needs more unashamed conversation.” We need to take it out of the darkness and bring it into the light.

Maybe it’s just a part of growing older, but the number of people I have personally known who have ended their lives by suicide now requires two hands to count. And that’s too many. What has also struck me is that most of the people I have personally known, have been leaders.

This topic has been especially highlighted for me because not only is September suicide awareness month, but one year ago this week, the day before World Suicide Prevention Day, two leaders ended their lives by suicide and I had connections to both. NBC News: Suicides by Two Mental Health Advocates Serve as Grim Reminder

It’s easy to see someone in a prominent leadership role and to assume that they have no personal challenges. Even more so, I think many leaders feel pressured to come across and act as if they have no challenges. Almost, as if they aren’t actually human. It’s only been in recent years in the study of leadership that vulnerability has been considered an attribute, as opposed to a detriment, of effective leadership.

But the vulnerability attached to admitting depression or suicidal thoughts still seems to haunt some leaders. Just because you are in a leadership role doesn’t mean you are immune from the mental health challenges associated with suicidal thoughts.

Talk openly about suicide, even with a leader.

Here’s what the Mayo Clinic recommends. Be sensitive, but ask direct questions, such as:

  • How are you coping with what’s been happening in your life?
  • Do you ever feel like just giving up?
  • Are you thinking about dying?

The Clinic goes on to say, “Asking about suicidal thoughts or feelings won’t push someone into doing something self-destructive. In fact, offering an opportunity to talk about feelings may reduce the risk of acting on suicidal feelings.”

The majority of suicides in the U.S. are among working age adults. Working age suicides have increased 34% in the U.S. in the years 2000-2016, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Come out of the darkness.

We all need to come out of the darkness, including leaders, maybe even especially leaders.  We need more unashamed conversation about suicide.” That conversation requires bold grace.

Thursday, September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. Join others around the world and light a candle near a window at 8pm to show your support for suicide prevention, to remember a lost loved one, and for the survivors of suicide.

Confident or insecure leader: which are you?

Insecure leaders are like fireworks with a lit fuse.  It’s only a matter of time until they explode, and when they do, they hurt everyone close to them.  ~The John Maxwell Company

Confident or insecure—sometimes it can be a fine line between the two. But once a leader has crossed over from confident to insecure the dominoes begin to fall, quickly. Over the years of consulting I’ve observed a pattern. When some people are elevated into leadership positions, their insecurities take over and while they think they are demonstrating confidence, that’s not what those on the receiving end see or feel.

I took a few minutes to research what others have experienced in comparison to my own encounters with leaders who are insecure. Here are four questions that seem to be a common perspective.

How do you handle conflict?

Are you going to an extreme? In other words, are you avoiding conflict by being passive-aggressive? Or, are you going to the other extreme and do you see every scenario as a potential conflict? As Sam Luce said in his blog post 5 Signs You Might Be an Insecure Leader, “They are either too soft and squishy or harsh and uncaring. Secure leaders handle conflict with truth and grace working together, because relationships matter more than being right.”

Do you overcompensate?

Jeanne Sahadi in CNNMoney said it well. “Insecurity can be disguised by bullying, arrogance, or power-mongering.” Do you believe that you are superior? Is your own self-importance taking a priority over building relationships? Is your title more important to you than letting others see your authentic self? If you said yes to any of these questions, you may be overcompensating.

Are you hiding in your office?

I like this one because it’s kind of obvious. I’ve seen leaders almost literally circle their wagons by bringing their direct reports as physically close as possible and even putting up physical walls or doors to make it more difficult for employees to reach them. These leaders always seem to have so much work to do that they just don’t have the time to get out of their office and engage with employees. This question isn’t metaphorical, it’s literal, are you hiding in your office?

Are you respectful of others?

Respect—I love that word because it can cover so much territory. Disrespect can include everything from not helping others grow, being a know-it-all, surrounding yourself with people you can control, considering anyone who disagrees with you “disloyal,” etc. Simply put, the word respect means: admiration, high opinion, reverence, value, esteem. Respect is not the absence of treating people poorly; it’s a word packed full of intentionality and deliberate behavior. Are you respectful of others?

A confident leader is someone who leads with bold grace. An insecure leader leads with fearful interference (the opposite of bold grace – check Merriam Webster).

Empathy is Not Endorsement

Sometimes, the most subversive thing you can do is to actually speak with the people you disagree with, and not simply speak at them. ~Dylan Marron

Unite Widely. Sounds a bit daunting, doesn’t it? We seem to be very good at drawing lines in the sand and taking sides. The most popular strategy appears to be suggesting that we fear the “other.” And I have the audacity to suggest that we Unite Widely.

The NeuroLeadership Institute recently offered a series called “How to be an Ally in this Moment.” They provide three points. Listen Deeply. Unite Widely. Act Boldly. I want to very briefly unpack how we can begin to Unite Widely.

Dylan Marron is a young man who has been bullied most of his life and now challenges himself to empathize with those he profoundly disagrees with. In this TED Talk, Dylan said this about empathy. “Empathy, it turns out, is a key ingredient in getting conversations off the ground when people disagree. It can feel very vulnerable to be empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with.”

Empathy is Not Endorsement

Dylan continues to describe empathy. “Empathy is not endorsement. Empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not suddenly compromise your own deeply held beliefs and endorse theirs. It just means that you’re acknowledging the humanity of someone who was raised to think very differently from you.”

In order to be empathetic, to acknowledge the humanity of someone else, and to ultimately Unite Widely, we need to individually have a healthy personal identity that is not so easily influenced by outside sources. Christena Cleveland tells us that “identity and self-esteem processes are driven by a sinister force: our unmet desire to feel good about ourselves.” So, if we’re driven by a desire to feel good about ourselves, that makes being empathetic (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another), next to impossible.

This has caused me to really consider that if I hear a view or perspective that creates an emotional reaction, maybe I need to do more work on my own personal identity. Is my emotional reaction more about me than about what they are saying or proposing? If I have a resilient personal identity, then I should be able to choose how I respond and really listen to their perspective. In other words, empathize.

This is likely why the NeuroLeadership Institute started their three points with Listen Deeply. If we can’t Listen Deeply, we can’t really empathize. And, if we can’t empathize, how in the world can we Unite Widely?

Personal Challenge

I’ll end this post with a challenge for how to Unite Widely. If someone shares a similar view, perspective, or experience, it’s fairly easy to empathize. What if you find someone who has a dissimilar view and ask them why they have that view, to empathize, not debate? If you aren’t ready for that, maybe take a few minutes and listen, really listen, to an opposing political view (since there’s currently an abundance, regardless of your view) and ask yourself, why do they have that view. This doesn’t mean you endorse their view, just listen to understand, to acknowledge their humanity. That gets a step closer to empathy, which then gets a step closer to Unite Widely.

Listen Deeply. Unite Widely. Lead with bold grace.

Leaders, Listen Deeply, Especially Now

Listen with the intent to understand, not with the intent to reply. ~Stephen Covey

Whether the topic is the pandemic, politics, or the postal service, what I see is a lot of people talking (or yelling) at each other and basically getting nowhere. What we see on the public stage these days may not be all that different from what we see day to day in organizations. The lost ability to listen deeply.

Photo by kyle smith on Unsplash

To listen deeply we must remove any threats for the other person(s) to openly share what they are thinking and feeling. We need to create and extend psychological safety. A climate in which people feel safe expressing ideas, concerns, feelings, and perspectives without fear of embarrassment, ridicule, or retribution.  

If someone feels a threat, their fight-or-flight response may be triggered. When we feel threatened we literally have a physical reaction that causes tunnel vision. If we see a physical threat, our pupils dilate so we can be more observant of the threat. Our peripheral vision shrinks, reducing our field of vision to a tight circle in front of us so we can be more focused on the immediate threat rather than other details. We then have tunnel vision.

That same tunnel vision occurs when we sense any kind of threat – physical or social. We literally can’t think straight which only increases the feeling of being threatened. Feeling threatened blocks our creativity, reduces our ability to solve problems, and makes it harder for us to communicate and collaborate with others.

How do leaders create psychological safety to listen deeply?

Try using the SCARF Model. It was developed by David Rock as a brain-based model for collaborating with others.

S – Status – your relative importance to others. It’s about feeling cared for, respected, and valued; knowing where you fit. You know that it’s okay to be clumsy in what you say because it’s safe. Don’t devalue another’s perspective by trying to explain it away.

C – Certainty – your ability to predict the future. You can predict the future if you are in the loop, you know what’s going on, you have the same information as other people. Share information often and generously.

A – Autonomy – your sense of control over events. When you are given choices you have a sense of control. You get to choose what and how you share. Create multiple means for others to choose how they provide input and interact.

R – Relatedness – how safe you feel with others. You feel like you belong and are a part of the group. You receive cues about warmth, curiosity, and openness to your perspective. Instead of disagreeing, ask to help you understand their perspective.

F – Fairness – how fair you perceive the exchanges between people. You feel like people are treated impartially. The expectations are the same for everyone. Never show favor or exclude people intentionally.

Create psychological safety. Listen deeply. Lead with bold grace.