5 core skills for resilient leadership in turbulent times

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Elite athletes and their coaches understand the importance of balancing intensity with recovery. In the workplace, we’re starting to realize that performance in caring for yourself and others isn’t some fluffy wellness ideology — it’s a core driver of productivity and engagement. Without clearly defined rhythms, bad habits — like multitasking, mindless activity, and hypervigilance — become the default. Then, instead of a fundamental state of nervous calm, employees get used to a baseline of fight, flight, or freeze.

For those who have made “stress” their default, punctuating the day with deliberate practices, such as relaxation techniques and quality sleep, is essential to negatively regulate the nervous system and avoid chronic distress.

Remember that our ancestors activated the stress response in sudden bursts, in the face of direct threats to their survival. Today, every day, we face thousands of virtual lions and tigers in the form of news feeds, social media posts, inboxes, ambiguity and ongoing disruption. A large majority of news is negative because it is more likely to attract attention. Those who do not deliberately disconnect and recover are likely to sink into exhaustion, fatigue, distress, languor, and burnout.

Related: 9 Ways Successful Entrepreneurs Handle Stress

Understand what top performers do differently

I have always been fascinated by the tools, techniques and rhythms practiced by the most resilient people. My team at the Resilience Institute has decided to embrace the pandemic as an opportunity to research the exact combination of skills that are most important in the face of extreme adversity.

We then measured 60 resilience factors on a global cohort of 23,990 professionals. Our Global Resilience Report 2022 reveals five critical success factors that most differentiate less resilient individuals. Organizations and leaders looking to mitigate the risk of disruption, talent loss, and volatility will benefit from integrating these learnings into their strategies for people growth and development. The five critical factors are as follows.

1. Sleep

Over the past two years, sleep quality has emerged as the determinant of high overall resilience, leading to better mental health and well-being. How often do you wake up feeling rested and ready? In a world awash with bright lighting and push notifications, the boundaries between work and rest have all but dissolved. Left to chance, a good night’s sleep may never happen. So how does a leader ensure quality sleep?

My simplest recommendation is to turn off bright lights and avoid screens in the last two hours before bed. Watch Netflix if you must, but do your best to create an environment conducive to deep rest. Your melatonin levels will stay elevated and you’ll be more likely to fall asleep and stay asleep. If you wake up with a busy mind, use long exhales to transition from fight-fly mode to a calm state.

Related: A brain surgeon’s advice for dealing with stress head-on

2. Realization

As companies grapple with “The Great Resignation”, fulfillment is critical to both individual well-being and talent retention. The loss of key talent is accelerating as millions of employees and professionals take advantage of the disruption caused by the pandemic to seek more fulfilling work.

One of the main reasons for this dissatisfaction is that conventional leadership does not create an environment conducive to personal happiness and fulfillment. Organizations that clearly articulate their purpose and consider the impact of the business on all stakeholders are more likely to build a fulfilled, mission-driven workforce.

3. Bounce

Rebound is the foundation of resilience. When we face adversity, it triggers awareness, learning, and adaptation. In most cases, research demonstrates that even in severe adversity, there is post-traumatic growth. Thus, “rebounding”, as a set of learned skills, allows us to recover quickly after dealing with change and disruption.

In late 2020, I worked with Texas A&M University to conduct a study measuring the impact of resilience training on engineering students. We found that an eight-hour virtual class, delivered over four weeks, resulted in a 53% increase in rebound ability, as well as significant gains in feel-good factors. Resilience is learned.

Related: 11 Effective Ways to Deal With Entrepreneurial Stress

4. Relaxation

Performance pressure mixed with anxiety, self-critical thinking, anger and perfectionism create an explosive cocktail of symptoms of distress in today’s work environment. Relaxation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing calm, connection and focus.

Modern leaders should both model and emphasize the importance of punctuating each day with moments of deep relaxation and recovery. Recognize and reward those who take micro-breaks, walk outside at lunchtime or practice meditation. When explaining this concept, refer to tennis players and the regular micro-breaks they take to reset and recharge. It is a performance with care.

5. Concentrate

Focus has always tracked the three main factors as a differentiator for high levels of resilience. In a sleep-deprived and digitally invasive world, our focus – or attention span – has been fragmented. The average adult changes their focus every three minutes, and the young average changes every 18 or 19 seconds. Focusing on a clear goal is a prerequisite for the state of flow and the subsequent 500% productivity boost.

When interrupted by an email, tweet, or notification, it can take 30 minutes to regain the targeted engagement required for the stream. If productivity is the goal, focus is the catalyst. Encourage and model deeply focused work, followed by rest and reflection. The first hour of every day is usually wasted on emails. What if your team used that first hour—probably its peak alertness for the day—for the most important tasks rather than the most urgent?

Related: 40 Entrepreneurs Share Their Secrets to Staying Focused

Be the change you want to see

As a leader, you are the change you want to see in the business. Emotions are contagious and if left unchecked can quickly create chaos within a team. A leader who models distress, fear, or anger signals to the team that the environment is unsafe.

Humans naturally seek security, so team members may then undermine the distressed leader, retreat, or seek safer pastures. The Great Resignation may, in fact, be a response to distressed and fearful leadership.

What then is the priority for leading through turbulent times? Unwind, rejuvenate and model the success factors for sustained performance: sleep, fulfillment, rebound, relaxation and focus.

Secure your oxygen mask before dealing with those around you. You will be a better leader and your team will notice it.