Last week, Julie, my 16-year-old daughter, showed a lot of courage and love when she shared with me that she has been feeling less listened to by me during the last months, and that she is suffering from the situation. I am deeply touched by her words and we have had a beautiful conversations which opens a new perspective on my work and my practice: whatever I do and however disciplined I am in my journey towards exemplary leadership, it will always be about coming back to centre and choosing consciously who I want to be in the moment.
I’ve been struggling with some heavy stuff lately, and without feeling the need to share about it in detail, I realize now that this experience was strong enough to bring me ‘off-centre’ for a longer period of time than usual when I’m under pressure. Without me even realizing it, this ‘off-centre’ state was affecting my close relationships; it was probably what Julie was experiencing when she felt unheard by me.
We are ‘off-centre’ when our leadership behaviours are not aligned with what and who we care about. And this impacts our performance.
One of the essential pieces that I have in my life and in my work as an executive coach is the importance of conscious practice. Leaders learn through practice. And they are always practising something, consciously or not. The good news (or bad news, depending on what you choose to practise) is that with time, we ‘become’ these practices. It’s what neuroscience calls ‘neuroplasticity’(*).
Under pressure I have learned to practise ‘knowing’ instead of ‘listening’. I’ve been practising this for decades and, with some cynicism, I would say that I have become quite good at it. Unfortunately, it also sometimes gets in the way of my commitments to be a loving father and a transformative presence for my coaching clients.
Each leader has their own conditioning under pressure that jeopardises their performance.
Some of us take distance and become critical, others avoid conflict or have difficulties making decisions, and still others become autocratic, strive for perfection, and forget to connect with and develop others. Look around you; if you work in this busy world, you probably see examples of this play out every day.
We know it, and knowing is not enough… especially under pressure:
Exemplary leadership is a warrior journey of committed practices
I used to believe in a sentence that I often read on social media: ‘You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you're too busy, then you should sit for an hour.’ It’s indeed a beautiful intention… but in real life, it’s a nonsense. Under strong pressure, it’s about staying on the path and surviving. And surviving, for me, is keeping whatever small practice alive till I can gradually realign my behaviours with what is meaningful for me, short step by short step.
Here is how to do it:
1) Find a powerful intention and cultivate it when life is going well:
The most effective way to develop a practice that will support your leadership performance under pressure is to start practising when life is going well. Find your way to connect to what you care about when you are not too distracted by the turbulence of life. A good practice is to breathe deeply, reconnect to (feel) your body and its intelligence, and use it to explore the future that you want. Ask yourself what kind of leader you want to be. What kind of person do you want to become? What future do you want for the people you care about? Find a short and powerful declaration which galvanises you… Breathe and feel the experience of declaring this future, again and again, till it becomes a resource that’s internally available to you when you need it most.
Here are some examples that touched me deeply during coaching conversations in recent months: ‘I’m committed to leading with my heart’, ‘I’m committed to courageous authenticity’, ‘I’m committed to lead this transformation with courage and humanity’, ‘I’m committed to a world affirming future for all’, ‘I’m committed to children’s dignity’, ‘I’m committed to bringing my kids to university’, ‘I’m committed to giving equal importance to financial and human development’, ‘I’m committed to the full release of human possibilities’, ‘I’m committed to deeper connection with the people I love’, and ‘I’m committed to being a loving father’.
2) Be kind to yourself:
Guilt is a mood of our times. We judge ourselves for not being who we want to be without really knowing how to reshape. In a way, being hard on ourselves may even feel good, but it’s a waste of time and energy.
Our leadership performance under pressure is linked to our ability to focus our attention on the results we most want while simultaneously telling the truth about our current reality without opposing or fixing it.
Learn to observe the thoughts that tell you that you are not good enough or that ‘it’ is not good enough. Breathe deeply, acknowledge them as being part of your conditioning, and park them.
Learn to observe the unpleasant physical sensations connected with these thoughts and find a practice that helps to release these tensions.
Many executives use mindfulness practices to develop these specific capabilities. Combining these or other attention practices with any other practices that release your physical tension will be helpful.
3) Find your resilience practice:
Resilience is our capacity to ‘bounce back’, to see possibilities, and to stay connected during and after times of stress. It starts with finding rituals for renewing your energy. Examples of practices are connecting to nature and animals, playing in a creative environment (art, dance, music), cultivating a deep connection to people we care about, using your imagination, and participating in collective practices within your community.
One of my clients is the local managing director of a leading consumer goods manufacturer. He adopted a simple ritual of a 15-minute walk in the afternoons. The idea is simply to relax the body, mind, and emotions while accessing more meaningful and creative ideas. Another client, a sales director in the automotive services, has a daily 10-minute ‘listening with care’ moment with his young boy in the mornings before school. Another one has an interesting ‘three deep breaths’ practice before picking up each phone call.
In turbulent times, finding pragmatic ways to improve the quality of your energy will dramatically influence your effectiveness and satisfaction under pressure.
4) Practise your leadership commitment in a safe place first:
Roger Federer didn’t learn to serve a tennis ball at 230 km/hour during the final of Roland Garros. He trains every day. In scientific terms, he has developed generic practices to support the neuronal transformation. Effective leaders do the same.
If your practice is about listening under pressure, start with listening consciously to the birds for a few minutes each day. If your practice is about authentic connection with your peers, hug your partner and look deeply in his or her eyes. If it’s about taking more space in a board meeting, take more space the next time you meet your friends. And if it is about trusting more, start with going outside your comfort zone, for example, taking a beginner tango dancing course.
Under pressure, explore what could be the right generic practice for you and practise it with discipline. The key here is to align the body and mind for more skilful action, despite the difficult circumstances. Remember to stay connected with your intention: declare your commitment first and then do your practice. Your intention will support your practice. Only then will your practice support your intention.
And If you can’t find the right practice on your own, do as Roger Federer and many others have done, and find a coach who can help you to explore what it could be.
Yes, exemplary leadership is a warrior journey of committed practise. It’s not an easy journey. Still, when the intention is clear and powerful, you have no other choice. And when the practice is clear and pragmatic, you learn.
Today, beyond the pressure, my commitment is to be a loving father to Julie and Liam and a transformative presence for my clients. My practice is about quietening my mind and cultivating sincere curiosity. What is yours?
(*) We restructure our brain through repetitive practices that integrate our physiological, emotional, and cognitive self. With time, those new thoughts, sensations, and emotions become a part of who we are.