- Clarify a vision. Mandela’s dedication to the African people and the ideal of a free and democratic society where all people would live in harmony kept hope alive for the South African people. It also kept Mandela’s own hope alive during his years of unjust confinement. Hope is not a guarantee of a desired outcome, but a deep and sustaining confidence that our contribution will make a difference – regardless of the outcome. What is your personal vision that inspires hope?
- Open your hearts. Divisiveness, exclusion, and dissention have been a part of the places where we live and work the past two+ years. Vaccine mandates, corporate policies, religious views, and political opinions have divided families and workplaces like nothing I have experienced in my lifetime. Ask yourself who in your world needs to be listened to, heard, and truly understood. Where might apologies be needed? It’s not agreement but respect, understanding, and compassion that is required. It’s naïve to think that we can just return to work and personal relationships, and everything will be back to normal. Healing from the impact of the pandemic will take time, patience, and much caring from everyone.
- Let go of bitterness. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,” said Nelson Mandela, “I knew that if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Forgiveness is not some bleeding-heart, Sunday school platitude. Forgiveness is having the courage to honestly face the emotions that come from being unjustly injured and then letting go of the right to be resentful. It takes maturity to be able to bear an injustice without wanting to get even. Forgiveness does not abdicate the importance of justice; rather it removes revenge from the justice process. Forgiveness transforms vengeance into freedom. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.”
American philosopher, William James, said, “there lies within every being a place where, when connected to it, we feel deeply and intensely alive. At such moments there is a quiet voice inside that says, ‘This is the real me.’”
After completing the Authentic Leadership Academy this week, I agree as it was truly an experience of being ‘deeply and intensely alive’ for me.
Over sixty like-minded leaders from all walks of life and from all types of organizations came together virtually for three days. We shared a commitment to make a difference in the world and to amplify our impact by supporting each other to connect with our authentic selves.
A diverse group of people who would not have been able to connect like this in-person shared a unique learning experience in a virtual space. There were amazing stories, tears, laughter, and pure joy as we built an authentic community. I left incredibly inspired by the humanity, courage, and wisdom that emerged during our brief time together. We all left knowing that none of us are alone.
When we departed, we weren’t just leaving a virtual event, we were leaving a community. I left inspired with a renewed belief that the work of a leader is to turn a group of people into a community. It’s that simple and it’s that complex.
COVID-19 has accelerated the evolution of work and the re-examination of our lives. The new workplace reality is that organizations need to be more flexible in their approach to work. Many workers are emerging from the pandemic with greater independence and autonomy over their career and life choices. To attract and keep the best people, organizations need to adapt to these evolving expectations.
But the Academy last week reminded me that whether we’re connecting virtually, in-person, or in a hybrid environment, people really haven’t changed much. They have the same need to belong, to be a part of something beyond themselves, to be working toward a shared vision, and to contribute something meaningful in the world. And our workplaces still serve as an important tool to make that happen.
Here are three strategies to re-engage, renew, and refocus your team in a post-pandemic world:
1. Integrate flexibility with accountability. People will undoubtedly be across the spectrum as far as readiness and commitment to return to the office. Some are yearning for the office environment where they have routine, work/life boundaries, and meaningful and creative connections, while others love being at home with the independence and freedom it permits. While flexibility will be the new norm in a hybrid approach, there must be accountability. The work still has to get done and some in-person interface will undoubtedly be required for creativity and collaboration. While lots of work can be done remotely, some work, to maximize potential, has to be done in-person. The key is to work toward a flexible, accountable structure that works for everyone. Remember: leadership isn’t about always being pleasing or making things easy for people. You have to push and challenge as much as you grant grace and respect the need to feel safe. As the old saying goes, “If it’s not good for the hive, it’s not good for the bee.”
2. Ensure values alignment. Historically, values have been driven from the positional leaders of an organization. The boss tells the employee what the values are and what the expected behaviors need to be. The new world presents an opportunity to collaborate more meaningfully with your team members. Listen carefully to what people’s personal values are and explore a win-win relationship so that both the organization’s and employee’s values are aligned. There is potential for higher engagement and inspired employees who know you care about their work and where it fits into their lives – and that you care about their lives beyond work.
3. Create a platform for authentic contribution. People ultimately aren’t inspired by what they get; they are inspired by what they give. We are all unique and have something important to offer. Rather than simply giving people a job to do, be committed to know the gifts and passion of every person under your care and devote yourself to supporting the expression of these unique abilities in a way that contributes to the organization and those you serve. Everyone has a story, and when you can create an environment that brings that story to life, that ignites their inner flame, you’ll never have to spend another day motivating anyone. If you aren’t empowering passion and building capacity in others, you aren’t leading. Every person needs to be able to answer the question: Why do you matter here?
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
We all have the ability to choose how we react in our circumstances and given the situations we now find ourselves in, it is helpful to fortify ourselves so we choose wisely. I offer some suggestions to strengthen your mental toughness to help you thrive through these challenging times.
For the past eighteen months through the weariness of COVID, I have been inspired by studying the lives of those who stayed strong and compassionate through the hard times. An impressive example and role model is Nelson Mandela. The longest stretch of Mandela’s twenty-seven years in prison was his eighteen years on Robben Island where he endured harsh conditions in a cell block constructed for political prisoners. Each prisoner had a single seven-foot square cell with a slop bucket, around a concrete courtyard. They were allowed no reading materials and worked crushing stones with a hammer to make gravel in a blindingly bright limestone quarry. He endured and emerged to be one of this century’s most influential leaders.
In addition to being inspired by such stories, I’ve gained strength by becoming a more thoughtful observer of my own life through this journey. Here are six lessons I have learned about mental toughness in an age of comfort and entitlement.
1) Start with a compelling vision. When my father agreed to be my track coach in high school the first thing we did was establish an inspiring goal. As a former nationally ranked gymnast, he could see I didn’t have Olympic talent. But that didn’t stop him from challenging me to have a dream of making the Canadian Olympic team. He would say, “the purpose of having a dream is not to achieve your dream; it’s to inspire you to become the kind of person it takes to achieve your dream.” A compelling vision gives you a reason to have mental toughness. I didn’t get out of bed at 5:00 am to run ten miles in a freezing snowstorm. I got out of bed at 5:00 to prepare for the Olympics. What is your compelling vision?
2) Embrace the grind. When I look back over my sixty-five years, I recognize that the hardest and most frustrating times in my life were also the most formative. Challenges in life are unavoidable. If we help our children accept difficulty as a part of life and instead of making it easier for them, support them through it, they have a greater chance of success as adults. Children who learn to handle their own problems are also the ones who are more apt to thrive as adults. The Chinese saying, “Chi Ku Shi Fu” (eating bitterness is good fortune) highlights the idea that there is the opportunity for wisdom and growth amid misfortune. While we don’t have control over the situations that life will bring to us, we do have a choice of how we react to them. Life is tough. When you can accept and embrace that fact, life is no longer quite so difficult. The 40% rule, first coined by David Goggins, explains that when your mind and body are starting to tire and you feel like giving up, you’re only at forty percent of what you are truly capable of achieving. My dad said it this way: “Don’t pray for the world to get easier; pray instead for the you to get stronger, and then get to work.”
3) Be in it for the long game. Twenty-seven years in prison teaches you many things, but one of the lessons is to play the long game. According to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela was impatient as a young man. He wanted change yesterday. Prison taught him to slow down, and it reinforced his sense that haste often leads to error and misjudgement. Above all, he learned how to postpone gratification. Many of us are used to the opposite. Because of our aversion to discomfort, we confuse instant gratification with expressing ourselves. Getting through this pandemic with mental toughness means letting go of our need for immediate relief and trusting – with a firm resolve – that we will come through this – and we’ll be better for it.
4) Find your hidden power by focusing on what you can control. Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, walked with a limp as the result of years of being chained up as a slave. Great thinkers like him knew that the only thing you ever really have control over are your deliberate thoughts. You can’t control other people, you can’t control your situation, and you can’t always control your own body. So, the only thing you do have control over is your emotions, thoughts, and behavior—the essence of mental toughness. A hidden power from within is harnessed when we spend our time on things over which we have complete control: goals, values, and what we do with our thoughts.
5) Keep your heart open. Mental toughness isn’t the same as cold, callous grit. Mental toughness is more like tender courage. It’s realizing that it’s not determination but acceptance that demonstrates strength: letting go of the resistance and the war. And it means finding ways to express kindness at every opportunity. An entrepreneur with anxiety and depression whose business has taken a hit through the pandemic called me last week in an entirely different mood. He was confident and inspired and told me how one morning that week an elderly stranger pulled up beside him and asked for directions. After he found the directions on Google Maps and tried to explain to the stranger how to arrive at his destination, he could tell how confused this poor man was. So, my client then had him follow him as he drove there. This simple act of kindness made his whole day. It’s kindness – not cruelty – that’s going to get us through this.
6) Plant a garden. Even on a remote island, Nelson Mandela needed a place where he could be with himself and find strength. The early days on Robben Island were bleak. The wardens were coarse and abusive. The work was backbreaking. Prisoners were permitted only one visitor and a single letter every six months. So, Mandela decided to plant a garden. In his autobiography, he goes to great length to talk about the meaning it had for him to go through the arduous work of creating a garden amid the obstacles of a prison system, and then carefully nurturing it. It was not a place of retreat but of renewal. “Each of us,” he later explained, “needs something away from the world that gives us pleasure and satisfaction, a place apart… You must find your own garden.”
If you are interested in getting more of my perspective on living through this pandemic with greater mental strength, please join me for my complimentary webinar on Tuesday, October 26th:
A crisis is really a terrible thing to waste. – Paul Romer, Stanford economist