How do you sustain your own commitment, your energy, your spirit in the midst of a wave of negative signposts – both real and imagined? How do you as a leader maintain hope?
I’ve delayed posting this article. I keep thinking the economy will be turning soon, and all will be well. Meanwhile, the news is loaded with contra-indications. I continue to hear a drumbeat of discouragement among leaders too – not so much in their public statements (where they use terms like “cautious optimism”), but when we sit down to talk in private. Little hope is evidenced in opinion polls – a recent one showing that 73% of people believe real economic recovery is a long way off. In a recent Rochester Business Journal editorial, Paul Ericson, though long-term optimistic, cited sobering parallels to: the crash of 1987, the Great Depression, and the economic collapse in the late 1870’s. Yikes!
Thus, the questions I posed at the beginning. It’s not that I have answers to those questions, but I certainly join you in the grappling. Here are some thoughts and strategies meant to spark your own creative, self-renewing spirit:
Awareness and Self-Honesty
I think of that ironic idiom: “The truth will set you free – but first it will make you miserable!” Here are corollaries:
• “The truth will set you free – but first you must face it!”
• “The truth will hound you until it is heard!”
• “Recognizing the truth is less painful than denial of the truth!”
Carrying unacknowledged discouragement is withering to the human psyche. The disheartened spirit that has not been recognized cannot maintain internal integrity. This happens when we deny, ignore, and stifle the true state of our struggling spirit. In a gallant though dangerous charade, we try to pretend to ourselves and the world that we’re just “FINE”. We’ll listen to motivational speakers to pump ourselves full of contrived enthusiasm, coerce ourselves to press on, all in an effort NOT to feel the pain we are actually experiencing. Unacknowledged, unexpressed discouragement is cancerous. Psychological, spiritual and physical symptoms are triggered, e.g.: poor sleep, irritability, energy loss, stilted thinking and strained decision-making. This is how the cost of denial surfaces. It has no other choice if we don’t allow it any other choice.
So the first step in coping with discouragement is the honest recognition that it exists!! This means raising our emotional state to the conscious level called feelings. This is also called dealing with reality – the reality of our own spirit!!
Most of us are indoctrinated early on with a series of negative judgments about the emotion of discouragement. Even if we don’t subscribe to these judgments intellectually, they arise nevertheless quite automatically:
• It’s not right to wallow in discouragement!
• I have to get myself psyched up!
• It’s wrong to be down, even for a moment.
• I can’t allow myself to get discouraged.
We know these judgments are lurking there to condemn us. This may be why we avoid awareness in the first place. We anticipate the self-inflicted punishment that awaits us if we acknowledge discouragement and its kind. Just as we might have been told we “shouldn’t be angry”, many of us have learned to criticize ourselves for other common and automatically triggered emotions. There’s an admonishing parent or teacher or coach in there somewhere! Whose voice are we hearing?
So acceptance is vital here. This means avoiding the path of judgment, replacing this tendency with a gentle curiosity. This acceptance needs to be exercised in relation to the emotions themselves, and in relation to ourselves. The title of this article, after all, is NOT “Conquering Discouragement”, or “Ridding Oneself of Discouragement”, or “Stamping Out Discouragement”. I chose “Walking Through Discouragement”, implying an easy coexistence with the emotion, and gentleness with the person experiencing it!
Another aspect of acceptance is the recognition of what we can and cannot control. Any time I spend bemoaning something over which I have no control is pure waste. Any effort to change that which I do not have the power to change is irrational. Leaders can agree to these notions intellectually, but check out yourself. Replay your conversations and track your thinking time: How much of it is squandered on complaining or “wishing it were otherwise”? When I catch myself in this mode, I recall the classic serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Acceptance.
In trying times, a leader’s thinking can also become skewed regarding the limits of his/her own responsibility for the situation. The tendency of well-intentioned leaders is to over-function in a variety of ways:
• I must be able to solve this problem.
• There must be some way I can correct this situation.
• I must be doing something wrong.
• It’s all up to me.
• Their lives and livelihoods are in my hands.
• I should know what to do here.
• If only I were smarter, sharper, more knowledgeable.
• I have to find the answers.
• I’m in charge of figuring this out.
• My people need me to be there.
• I have to be available to anyone who needs me.
• If I come in early and stay later, I will inspire others.
A well-differentiated leader frequently grapples with fine-line but important distinctions. How, for example, do we spot the difference between:
• Conveying genuine human concern vs. demonstrating a savior complex?
• Focused dedication vs. hyperactive frenzy?
• Caring for people vs. carrying people?
Perhaps our primary responsibility to employees/direct reports is to maintain healthy balance and a realistic sense of burden.
Finally: Coaching Others
Your people can sense when you’ve engaged in your own internal work. They know instinctively when you are aware, awake, astute and honest with yourself. They can distinguish this state from a hollow, over-enthusiastic, cheerleading state. They know when you are coercing yourself to appear bright and peppy. They can distinguish between your genuine energy and your stuffed anxiety. Managing your own ongoing process gives you the legitimate license to coach others through THEIR process.
If you sense someone on your team is “slogging through” discouragement, they may need explicit permission to get real with themselves. They may need help, e.g.: accepting the normality of their emotions, catching themselves “awfulizing”, bearing more than is theirs to bear, or attempting to bend the world to their will. Your coaching can help them navigate through these pitfalls.
There is immense power in this mode of coaching. You are helping people regain their center and reclaim their energy. This opens the gateway to creativity, intuitive problem-solving, reality-based assessment, and genuine commitment. These are vital to your own health and to the health of the organization you lead.
I also have experienced so often that the words which flow from my mouth in coaching are exactly what I need to hear!