Keeping your head in the toughest times…
Last weekend, mindful we were reaching the end of the dry weather, I headed to the Peak District for a last summer walk. My route was a twenty two mile circuit, along the great ridge to Mam Tor, down across the valley floor to Edale, a loop out over Kinder Scout, then back along the far side of the valley to Win Hill and its stunning views to the East.
It had been years since I’d walked Kinder Scout, and memories, like hopes, can sometimes be more fragile than you’d expect, as I was about to discover.
The ascent begins with a steep rise up Jacob’s Ladder. Which winds on, and on, and on. Until you reach the top. Or you think you do, because then there’s another climb. And when you reach the top of that… there’s still one more, up to the large rocks on the summit. Which isn’t actually the summit, just the start of another climb. And on it goes.
There’s a reason that the punishment Zeus meted out to Sisyphus holds up as a powerful parable even now: the touching distance of completion; the repeated dashing of hope; the lack of certainty things will ever end.
Fortunately, on this occasion, I knew I’d face a few false dawns on the way up. I also knew I’d climbed that route before, and that if I kept making good decisions about which path to take, stopped hoping this next one would be the last and instead, pressed on with a simple self-belief, at some point the final peak would be behind me.
For many of us, these recent, fleeting weeks of getting back to the office, meeting up with friends and colleagues, chatting in person between calls and meetings, have been a long time coming, and a refreshing relief after months of lockdown.
But now it looks like there’s another peak ahead; another push required; another Sisyphean stretch of remote-working and semi-isolation in store for all of us. Another test of our individual and collective resilience and resolve.
And so, as leaders, we need to rapidly re-learn and apply, the lessons of recent months, particularly around the mental health and productivity of our people. We need to make time for informal conversations as a priority. What we used to think of as “pointless” meetings without an agenda, and “idle” time in calendars between meetings – they have never been so critically important as they are now, for both health and productivity.
But more than that, we need to understand our own psychology and needs. We will need to care for ourselves and our own mental wellbeing if we’re to care for others. We need to get our own heads in a good space first, if we are to rationally and objectively look at the situation ahead, and the decisions we need to take about the diverging paths in front of us. And we need to replace fickle hope with firm self-belief.
Good leaders, CEOs and entrepreneurs are optimistic by nature. But hope doesn’t help with resilience over the long run. Probably the best example of this was shared by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, when he described the “Stockdale Paradox”.
Admiral James Stockdale was a US naval officer who survived over seven years of incarceration and torture in a Vietnamese POW camp, with no idea when, or even if, it would ever end. When Collins interviewed Stockdale, he asked him how he had endured, while so many alongside him hadn’t.
“It was worst for the optimists,” replied Stockdale, “the ones who said, ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas’, and Christmas would come and go – they suffered from a broken heart. I never wavered in my faith,” Stockdale explained, “not only that I would get out, but I would turn it into the defining event of my life that in retrospect I would not trade.”
As Collins summarised: you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
This week’s detour back towards lockdown will be tough for business and especially for charities, but it will be even tougher for some of the people around us and those we serve. For many, it will be chronically corrosive, possibly even devastating, for personal plans, for expectations, for hope.
Which is why leaders right now need to take a leaf out of Stockdale’s book, lose the rose-tinted hopes, and get brutally realistic about the coming months. Get back to the worst-case playbook. Move fast, be decisive, make the greatest positive impact you can when it’s most needed.
We have done this before, and this time around we can learn from the last. Or as Alf Ramsay told his England team before that 30 minutes of extra time in the ‘66 final, “You’ve beaten them once, you just need to go out there and beat them again.”
And as I said the last time we headed in this direction: if it would help to talk, just drop me a line and we can fix up a call. I’m here if you need me.