The surprising secret to leading in tough times

Many of the things we knew simply do not apply any more.

Right now, as I write this, we are caught in a species defining moment. Many of the things we knew simply do not apply any more, and we need to make a start again.

We are in a global wilderness, without a map, with the terrain changing every day, and no end in sight to the journey. Clearly schools, the social and healthcare sector and other keyworker organisations are at the sharp end of all of this. Leaders in these organisations, at whatever level are under tremendous pressure not only to support their teams but also the rest of us. How on earth can they hope to do so successfully and safely?

If we look to the science of Positive Psychology for inspiration there is something that safeguards mental and physical wellbeing, builds resilience and improves organisational effectiveness.

It may surprise you to learn (although I hope it doesn’t) that it’s compassion. Far from being a weakness compassion is more like a superpower.  Back in May 2017 the research organisation The Kings Fund detailed the advantages of compassionate leadership in healthcare. They found that in difficult times compassionate leadership enables team to find ways to change systems, take a radical look at innovation and nurture continuous improvement. |It improved intrinsic motivation and helped promote a culture of learning. Compassionate leadership also creates psychological safety and more cooperative working.

All of these are important of course but the amazing thing about compassion is revealed when we look at self-compassion. World renowned compassion expert Dr Kristin Neff and colleagues studied the impact of self-compassion on the incidence of PTSD in American combat veterans. They found there was a closer relationship between their levels of self-compassion and the incidence of PTSD than the amount of combat they faced. Those with higher levels of self-compassion before their tours were significantly less likely to develop trauma symptoms then their more self-critical colleagues. If self-compassion can make such a difference in that extreme situation, think what it can do to help us navigate our daily lives. Even now.

Neff’s model of compassion has three simple stages.

  • Noticing we are struggling. She calls this being mindful of how we feel. Typically, I suggest people remind themselves that this (whatever their situation is) is hard. It hurts.
  • Next is to remember we are not alone in difficulty. While that is clearly true of our current hardship it actually applies to any difficulty we face. Whether they are going through the same thing or not, everyone around us faces tough times. We are never the only ones to feel this way. We are part of a common humanity.
  • Finally, there is the idea of giving ourselves a moment of comfort. Whether it is a reminder that we will be ok, remembering that right now we are doing the best we can, or a bit of internal cheerleading, showing ourselves the same kindness we give to our friends is incredibly important.

These moments are not soft skills. They are a key part of having the mental and psychological fortitude to lead both others and ourselves through these turbulent times.

In our current battle we’d do well to remember Neff’s findings – the enemy within us has a greater impact on our psychological health than the enemy outside.  Compassion really is a superpower, and it lies within us all.

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