From canoeists to healers, business leaders in 2023
By Thom Dennis, CEO of culture change and leadership specialists, Serenity in Leadership
According to a survey conducted by Trvst in 2019, 81 per cent of respondents said that to judge a leader as successful, they must be able to lead them through “more complexity and ambiguity”. Few could have predicted exactly how leaders and businesses would have to navigate themselves through the tumultuous health, social, political and economic crisis after crisis over the last three years, but what is emerging is a clear need for leaders and their teams to take some time to regroup, repair and regenerate.
One in 4 people will experience a mental health condition every year in England according to Mind and suicide is the 4th leading cause of death amongst 15-29 year olds according to the World Health Organisation. In March of 2022, the WHO also stated that the Covid-19 pandemic was responsible for a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression on a global scale. With 1 in 14 UK adults reportedly feeling stressed on a daily basis, it is no surprise that two-thirds of full-time employees say they have experienced burnout at some point in their careers, but 36% of workers state that their organisations have done nothing to help stave off employee burnout. Additionally, burnout rates are reportedly higher in female leadership positions, with 50% stating that they are consistently burned out. This has a knock-on effect on workforces, with approximately 13.7 million working days being lost every year in the UK as a result of work-related stress, costing approximately £28.3 billion annually.
Those who succeed during a crisis, lead like a canoeist
I once had the privilege of rafting down the Grand Canyon, and a few canoeists came with us. Before each of the powerful rapids, we would all stop and assess the layout and plot a route through. This applied to everyone, even those who had been down the river a number of times as each journey is unique and changes depending on the power of the water. What I came to realise was that actually once you are in the rapid there’s very little you can do except be agile, use your experience and sense, work with the flow, not against it, and make small alterations as you go along to keep yourself on a safe route. It feels like a really strong metaphor for businesses surviving hard times – as opposed to leaders who jump in like an action figure, think Elon Musk and Twitter, and try to work against the flow, or even worse, dictate the flow. However, if the canoe has become damaged, we need to spend time fixing it, and not with small plasters and quick patches. The leader that instigates the sometimes painful process of healing following a difficult period of time, is the one who can lead their team to safety and growth through learning.
So what are the best ways to start the healing and regeneration process?
Understand what the priorities are.
We need to deal with the hard things first. Look at what you are not attending to that actually needs to be dealt with. Assess what’s in your ‘too difficult’ tray and start there. Get back to what is the DNA of the business whilst being curious about opening up to new opportunities and looking at new dimensions.
Know that the difference between good leadership and the misuse of power is fear and control.
To repair and rehabilitate a business involves the unification of those in a shared environment. So often, businesses will attempt a silo approach of addressing issues in isolation which often ends badly and with only the stimulation of personal agendas that facilitate greater issues and contribute to the fracturing of the business.
Leaders need to use power in a different way. The exercise of power is more about ego, and so naturally fear, authority and control play assorted parts in the equation. Good leadership is actually a kind of giving, being a role model, guiding individuals and helping to enable their personal achievements as well as success for a greater common interest. Great leaders come from a place of humility and service.
Cut out all that is unhealthy and be honest.
Being open with your workforce and addressing the difficult issues is the most healing decision for the long-term future of the business. Telling the truth with respect and clarity leads to repair and renewed health.
Aim for the transformation of a stagnated culture. Call things out bravely in the moment and take positive action rather than let the toxicity grow. Talk about the ‘elephants in the room’ because they sap so much energy. Excise what is noxious and seek to keep all healthy tissue where possible. It’s so easy to trigger each other with gossip, office politics and micro aggressions rather than taking any issues we may have to the person, but strong leaders must prioritise the restoration of unity and bring together any areas of the workplace that are fragmented or exiled. A lost sense of community is unbelievably damaging. We need to find a way to re-create this especially in work from home or hybrid communities.
Start deep listening. Stop what you are doing when someone is talking to you, don’t send emails, just look at them and bring your full self to the interaction. Often when we are in trouble, we don’t want a solution, we just want someone to hear what we are thinking and feeling, and someone’s full presence can facilitate that. Society has conditioned us to think we need to find solutions for others. Unless they ask for help just listening can quite often be enough. In this way they feel supported to dig deep, use their own resources and work out what to do themselves. This is both empowering and compassionate.
Know your purpose and show wisdom.
Good leaders have a high level or self-awareness; they consistently work to improve themselves, developing their CQ and EQ, fully embedding care and inclusion in their strategy. It is important also to understand one’s personal purpose, what drives one and how this is affecting behaviour, impact and strategy. They prioritise these aspects as much as profit and success. Today, if purpose is not embedded in your strategy and seen and experienced throughout your projects then you won’t get engagement from talent, especially from the younger generations.
Address all diversity, inclusion and equality issues. If combined with cultural intelligence, the more diverse the workplace the better it is for the business and its people. There is rarely only one right answer and so the more possible answers you have the better.
Know your people and what is going on and what is missing. Look for greater wisdom by walking around the office several times a week and chatting with colleagues. Look at your team and the dynamics and what’s going on amongst them, especially if not everyone is in the office at the same time.
If you are in a hybrid situation, ensure that when people are in the office, they spend less time on their emails, and more having face to face relating and community building.
Rebalance your emotional and physical selves.
In order to be great for their people, leaders need also to be good to themselves and respect the need for self-care. Healers understand the benefits of the feminine which expresses emotion whilst the unhealthy masculine rejects it and spends much of its energy suppressing it or expressing it dysfunctionally. Healer leaders encourage the sharing of emotions in themselves and in their people. There is a lot of toxicity and imposter syndrome at the moment and those people suffering need support because they inevitably bring their damaged selves to work. You can’t be creative and productive and thrive when you are feeling terrible.