What’s novel about COVID-19 isn’t just the coronavirus. It’s the sheer scale and depth of The Big Human Pivot that this tiny infectious particle has triggered. We are living through a moment that defies full comprehension before needing to act swiftly as global citizens, as leaders and as human beings.
In unprecedented times like these, when there is little in our personal experience to fall back on, what can you do to lead mindfully through it? In this three-part series, Lili Powell introduces a Leading Mindfully strategy: “see it, name it, tame it and reclaim it.”
A Wild Ride
At first the adrenaline feels like a rush. And in fact, that’s exactly what this strong hormone is meant to do. It mobilizes us, giving us the get-up-and-go and seeming superhuman energy necessary for sudden vigorous action. Provoking strong emotions, such as anger or fear, it transforms us into “fight or flight.”
Perhaps you have felt this very thing before in your own nervous system. Or have seen it in yourself or others during these first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis. While in some respects it’s adaptive, if unregulated, it can get in the way of leading mindfully.
When you hold responsibility as a leader, a crisis can feel like a charge of energy. You feel activated, focused, more decisive. In charge, you call the shots, mobilize your team, make stuff happen. Taking charge can almost feel like a thrill. Fortunately, many leaders keep their heads and humanity in check, rise to the occasion, and manage to respond effectively. This is hard to do during a “normal” crisis but even harder to do in the current catastrophic human and economic context triggered by COVID-19.
In times like these, leaders need to watch out for at least two potential leadership blind spots during a crisis. One involves overreacting, and the other involves denial. Unfortunately, both are a recipe for burnout, something that leaders and their teams cannot afford in an ongoing crisis like this one is sure to be.
While “fight or flight” can help us mobilize, it can also produce tunnel vision, causing leaders and teams to lose perspective and to overreact. For example, a former student told me recently that her boss intends to “be on it” and thinks he’s “on fire,” but she sees someone who is unhinged and “OBE” — overwhelmed by events. On overdrive, his frequent emails arrive at all times of the day and night, and he expects immediate responses. Work-life balance in the team has evaporated. The boss’ irritation and impatience have become contagious. Now the team struggles to understand the real priorities for their work.
In times like these, other leaders may fall back on an emotional defense strategy — suppressing or even repressing emotions. This can be a personal modus operandi, but sucking it up is sometimes valorized in work cultures. In my joint appointment with UVA’s School of Nursing, I have learned about the devastating effects of this coping strategy through our work with the Compassionate Care Initiative. For first responders and emergency workers, sucking it up comes at a terrible price of stress injury and in time can turn into lasting stress illnesses such as PTSD, depression, even suicide. Through CCI, we work to help health care workers recognize stress in others and themselves and to take steps to alleviate their suffering.
Unfortunately, when leaders adopt a sucking-it-up strategy, it not only hurts themselves, but it can also hurt their teams. For example, some team members may be still very much in touch with their emotions. In their fear, they look to the leader for guidance and assurance. But the leader’s sucking-it-up example unwittingly telegraphs callousness or indifference.
Thus a leader’s ability to manage his or her own inner reactivity affects his or her outer effectiveness. If you are struggling too, then it’s time to gather your wits and tame your reactivity — for you and for your team. But how?
In part one of this series, I described a technique called “name it to tame it.” Coincidentally, I picked up this phrase while teaching a class on crisis communication just before COVID-19 was really being felt here in the U.S. Referencing Dan Siegel’s The Whole-Brain Child, the student — an emergency medicine physician-leader — said, “In a crisis situation, it is like talking to your child, someone has to ‘name it to tame it.’”
A few years ago, I wrote an article for Mindful magazine about another technique for taming strong reactions that I call Arrive-Breathe-Connect. In that article, I illustrated how Arrive-Breathe-Connect can help you prepare for a difficult conversation. But the technique strikes me now as also useful in the context of a crisis, especially when you are in a leadership role and job No. 1 is to gather your own wits first.
In an ideal world, you’d practice this technique on your own before applying it during a high-stakes situation. But in the context of crisis, there’s no time like the present. So let’s dive in.
Read the directions below, and then give Arrive-Breathe-Connect a try yourself for just three minutes. Trust that a simple practice like this can bring greater clarity, calm and goodwill in a moment when how you show up as a leader really counts.
Arrive: Take a moment to fully “arrive.” Arrive by getting your body into an alert yet relaxed seated position. It may help at first to lower your gaze or close your eyes. Bring your attention into the present moment by drawing a boundary with the future and the past. Detach from your planning or worrying mind. Detach from your remembering or ruminating mind. If a stray thought comes into your mind, just let it go by, like watching a car pass on the street or a cloud float across the sky.
Breathe: Now shift your attention to your breath. Simply notice the physical sensations of inhaling and exhaling. Notice the coolness of the air as it enters your nostrils. The warmth, as breath leaves through the nose or mouth. Trace your breath as it moves deeper into the body. Notice as breath passes down through the throat and into the lungs. Notice that the muscular source of this motion comes from the diaphragm in the belly. Now hold your attention there for several rounds of breath.
Connect: If connecting with your breath alone feels good, you can stick with that. But even better can be training your attention to connect with whatever is happening with an attitude of curiosity and goodwill. Keeping yourself open to discovery and surfing moments of uncertainty are exactly the muscles you want to build and exercise in an ongoing crisis. Start small with just this present moment. While it sounds so simple, it can be anything but. Forcing doesn’t help. Just returning to this idea of connecting with curiosity and goodwill over and over and over until your three minutes are done.
If the moment calls for it, you can try these variations on Connect:
- Connect to physical surfaces. If you are feeling a bit shaky, feel the contact of your feet on the floor, the weight of your bum in your seat. As you do this, place your palms on your thighs or the arms of your chair or the top of a table. Feel into the firm support of these surfaces. Use these tactile sensations to feel more grounded.
- Connect to emotions as they unfold. If an emotion comes up while doing this exercise, acknowledge it without pushing it away or clinging to it. It can help to quietly name the emotion. Let the power of the word give shape to the experience. Let this be a moment of recognition. See whether acknowledging the emotion changes your experience of the moment in any way. A sense of calm? Tears? Clarity? If the emotion begins to feel too strong and threatens to overwhelm, shift back to connecting to physical surfaces.
- Connect with your humanity. If judgmental thoughts come up or you start to hear your inner critic’s voice, shift to a more generous stance or interpretation, especially in light of the extraordinary and arduous circumstances. Offer yourself or others an attitude of kindness, forgiveness or compassion. It may help to say your name or their name quietly to yourself, with an attitude of care.
After you end the exercise, notice if anything has changed since beginning the exercise. Perhaps you feel more clear or calm or kind. Perhaps real priorities are now more apparent or your own discomfort has eased. In the best of all worlds, you’ve regained the inner clarity to speak as a leader with candor and authenticity in a difficult moment. You’ll use this shift to inform your next Leading Mindfully move — “reclaim it” — which you can read about in our next installment.