When asked this question at a time of stress and upheaval in my life, I answered, “being able to bend and not break”. I had a mental image of how trees sway in a storm, and yet stay rooted. I developed the 5 Rs approach in this article, as a way of reminding myself what I need to do to stay resilient.
2020 brought awareness of the need for resilience to everyone as the pandemic has affected people in so many ways. Balancing professional lives, during lockdown, working from home, and home schooling in lockdown has meant extra challenges of living with anxiety, uncertainty, and overwhelm as well as the challenges of those working as key workers or finding themselves out of work.
Leaders are wanting to know how to deal with events outside their own control, which may affect their lives deeply, without hunkering down, and switching off, and being able to feel they can still make choices.
Rather than Reacting
On an individual level, Resilience can be best seen as a personal practice, and practices require repeated practice by paying attention to how you are acting and being at both a mental, emotional and physical level.
Choosing our response rather than reacting is not easy to do. Noticing your reaction is a first step and helps you be able to centre yourself and make a split-second choice when you notice you are triggered by an event, or a passing comment, and usually this is driven by your own feelings and assumptions.
Leaders can react to high levels of ambiguity and complexity by freezing, flight or fight often noticed as withdrawing or being quick to blame and be defensive. This causes a reaction viscerally, and you can recognise the signs of this in your body, which we are often disconnected from -” the classic head on a stick” syndrome that many years of education and socialisation may have produced . Working somatically is how we help leaders recognise how they are reacting in the moment and literally move – take steps to make shifts.
Learning to notice your reaction is a first step, as your body may react fast, in a pre-conscious way, your stomach may tighten, breathing become shallower and your pulse quickens, as you gear up in an automatic physical reaction. These reactions to potential triggers are driven by your own stress patterns, feelings and underlying assumptions about what the perceived threat or unwelcome news may mean.
A wider perspective
When we notice we are triggered and take a moment to reflect we can ask questions of ourselves and the situation in a wider perspective…, why am I using my emotional energy this way? what is actually going well in my life? Do I really need to re-run an old script here ? Recognising that “all too familiar feeling “ is a sure sign, your reaction could be an old pattern being triggered and helps you in stepping back from the trigger and taking a wider view of reality. Transformational shifts occur when we can step out of old patterns by recognising our assumptions and choose a new response.
I find that a sense of gratitude for life – just through breathing deeply and having some immediate connection to nature tends to restore equilibrium for me. If you are locked into zoom calls at your desk, your body needs to move and stretch. You can shift your perspective by noticing how you feel in your body, breathing, walking, moving, and switching your attention to a wider gaze. Nature is known to have a powerful effect in calming our nervous system, even recent research has shown that digital nature can also have this effect.
It also helps spend time on recognising what is the wider bigger picture here – the reality of others? what lay behind a decision that has affected you – sometimes a policy change, made by others, a decision taken a long way from the implications for you. How can you step into their shoes to check out their reality?
How can we be fully resourced?
Everyone’s route to being resourced will vary enormously. What is key is recognising what you need. For some people this will be having practical help from key people, tools to help them reflect, techniques to manage stress; for others, they need colleagues to confide in or an external coach. Nature can also be a resource, even in an office environment, moving about rather than being chained to your laptop. Increasingly, I notice I think more clearly when I am moving, out for a brief walk in the park or being out in a windy city street can resource me. Our complex body- brain connection was designed to help us move physically, as ancient humans in fight / flight mode, so we actually think better on the move.
Setting boundaries will help resource you so that you are able to be less affected by the systemic and cultural dynamics around you. This may include resilience practices such as digital hygiene, regular breaks, exercise, taking your holidays, diet and mindfulness.
The most effective leaders manage their boundaries as well as their time, and make choices moment to moment about what they let into their awareness, in terms of external pressures, demands and perceptions and focus on how they can maintain the mental, emotional and physical state they are in.
What does recharging mean to you?
Taking a complete break can be a breakthrough. Leadership retreats in nature – a fire circle in the woods, 24 hours solo time, forest bathing are ways leaders use to switch off from a myriad of pressures and being “always on “. Whilst we may not be travelling when in lockdown, it’s possible to recreate some of this for yourself in your daily walk. When we can meet up again we use this approach on our workshop on Resilience from Rewilding , at Orchard House,which gives you a chance to work in this way in nature. Meanwhile we are offering an online series of Resilience Reset sessions.
Having a day to day approach to build in recharge time is important to embed any changes in your life, whether its exercise, sport, mindfulness, relaxing.
Research conducted by University of Westminster where leaders were connected to a heart and cortisol monitor over a week as part of their Resilience Lab showed surprising results around what recharged them. The graph would stay in the red, even outside work, at the gym or putting the kids to bed, and individuals learned that “green moments” occurred at times they might not expect – singing with the kids, or whilst dancing round the kitchen making a meal, or appear in the day, when they completed the budget at long last. Having a personal guide to your own day to day pattern of recharge is invaluable.
Seeing with new eyes
How we reframe what we are experiencing and shift our mindset helps create long lasting shifts in practice, and can occur through examining what gives us meaning, and how much we are “on purpose” in our work and life. If we can reframe through examining the underlying patterns and assumptions, eg from “ I am constantly overwhelmed and too busy” to ” I have many choices and its ok to do enough, rather than 150% “, we have more chance of actually changing our behaviour, than just addressing the symptoms.
On workshops I have encouraged people to create a lasting symbol, to reframe their resilience through nature, by finding a natural object : something that represents the shift you are making or taking a mindful photo, seeing differently through capturing your shift in perspective on the phone. The pinecone I picked up once on a workshop sits on my desk as a personal reminder of how I can adapt resiliently, expanding when I need to, protecting my boundaries and closing up at other times.
Leadership requires self compassion
Finally, at the heart of resilience is compassion, for yourself and others – no need to criticise yourself for having your own reactions, as we all have personal patterns, often inbuilt from childhood, and eradicating them can be a life’s work. Recognising how you react and the pressures affecting you requires self-compassion and self-awareness. Whether this is about the pressure of a global pandemic or professional or cultural patterns within an organisational system, you can chose to respond differently, and step 1 is self compassion.
By Fiona Ellis