Most of my coaching clients are CEOs of rapidly growing companies, and while their work is always demanding and dynamic, sometimes they face a full-blown crisis, a threat to the organization’s existence that will require their maximum effort. These are the situations that truly test a leader’s ability to self-coach, to manage themselves effectively while also guiding others. Here are four factors that have helped clients who’ve had to surmount a crisis:
Taking care of ourselves when we’re in the midst of a crisis is easily overlooked because there are so many more urgent tasks to address—and yet it’s at these moments that a modicum of self-care becomes even more important. I’m not suggesting that we can maintain our personal routines as if everything’s normal—we will have to adapt to get through the crisis. But we also shouldn’t overreact and abandon our routines entirely. The important-but-not-urgent activities such as sleep and exercise that serve us well during normal times will continue to support during a crisis, and they may even be more critical to our effectiveness.
We may not be able to get a full night’s sleep, but we need to have a sense of our necessary baseline. After a certain point the extra hours of effort made possible by getting less sleep are outweighed by our sub-optimal performance—and we reach that point surprisingly quickly. We may not be able to stick with our fitness routines, but we can get out of the building and take a walk around the block every few hours. And if we meditate, we may have to adjust our practice, but bear in mind that one of the primary purposes of meditation is helping us direct and manage our attention, which becomes more important than ever during a crisis.
Another important aspect of self-care in a crisis is being mindful of what we eat. It’s tempting to simply consume whatever junk is on hand, and yet putting some effort into obtaining higher-quality food to sustain ourselves and the rest of the team will go a long way. (I've adopted a low-carb, high-fat diet, and in my experience it supports improved performance physically and mentally.) And if we drink, it’s even more important to pay attention to our consumption of alcohol in a crisis. It’s all too easy to drink more than we should as a way of managing stress or getting to sleep, and yet this is almost always counterproductive—we're better off making some time for exercise or reflection rather than relying on alcohol as a shortcut.
2. Emotion Regulation and Disclosure
In a crisis we spend a lot of time in close quarters with emotions running high, and if we’re in a leadership role we’re also under a spotlight—everyone is looking to us to set the tone, and this often requires us to carefully regulate what we say and how we say it. But leaders are as susceptible to strong emotions as any other individual, and there are limits on our ability to suppress feelings of anxiety or turmoil in order to serve as an example to others. There are also circumstances in which it’s helpful for a leader to disclose such feelings and share our vulnerability—if we always present a stoic exterior to the world, we’ll miss opportunities to create closeness and connection, and we’ll probably pay a personal cost in the process.
It’s essential to find the right balance between regulation and disclosure—to know when, how, and with whom certain thoughts and feelings should be expressed. People who lack the ability to regulate themselves in a crisis don’t tend to last in leadership roles—their fear or anger get the best of them, and they overwhelm their team and make sub-optimal decisions. But leaders who over-regulate in a crisis may also under-perform--the goal isn't to suppress these difficult feelings, but rather to regulate them and find the right way to disclose them in a given situation.
Leaders do need to be able to simply vent and express themselves without worrying about self-regulation, and this is more important than ever during a crisis. Having access to people we trust who aren’t personally invested in the success or failure of our organization is essential so that we can fully acknowledge the stress and anxiety we feel. Candid conversations with trusted allies make it easier to manage difficult emotions in more public settings. Note that this can pose a challenge when we only turn to family and friends in the midst of a crisis--they’re eminently trustworthy, but they may also be attached to a given outcome that makes it difficult for them to be objective listeners.
Crises inevitably involve holding difficult conversations when we’re not well-prepared. Under ordinary circumstances we’d put it off, but in a crisis this isn’t an option—we’re obligated to forge ahead and hope for the best. At these moments a simple way to prepare for a tough conversation is to role-play the first few minutes with a trusted ally. The purpose isn’t to “rehearse our lines”—it can be an unhelpful distraction to feel that we need to stick to a script, and if we come across as overly prepared we can create a sense of distance between us and the other party. Nor is the goal to predict the outcome—most interpersonal exchanges are too complex and dynamic to predict beyond a few rounds, and if the conversation takes an unexpected turn we’ll be at a disadvantage.
The real value of role-playing a difficult conversation is that it simulates the emotional state we’re likely to experience in the actual interaction, so that we’re better prepared to manage ourselves while in the grip of those feelings. This is why it’s important to truly commit to the experience in the role-play and not simply go through the motions. The ability to suspend belief and “act as if” we’re really having the conversation is essential to the process.
Note that a useful variation is a “reverse role-play,” in which our trusted ally adopts our role, and we adopt the role of the other party. This allows us to get a perspective on how our position might appear to the other party and to get a sense of how their position feels to them.
4. Slowing Down
Finally, we need to recognize that in a crisis we’re operating under high levels of stress constantly, which can easily create a sense of acceleration and urgency. And when we're that stressed our ability to process information diminishes, so we must remind ourselves to slow down, to pause before responding, and even to ask someone to repeat what they said because we want to be sure we understand them correctly.
And this brings us back full circle to self-care, because the hard work of slowing down when the world around us is speeding up is only possible when we're sufficiently well-rested and addressing our other physical, emotional, and mental needs.
Photo by Andrew Magill. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.