By Hazel Chapman, Executive Coach and Leadership Educator, Courage2Lead

This article was initially written prior to the war in the Ukraine. Events on the global stage continue to underpin the value and importance of inspiring and sound leadership. However, as well as being more in demand, leadership is also getting a whole lot tougher. The world is experiencing faster change and more complex threats. We need leadership to build confidence at the very point that it is difficult to do so.

As threats to our safety and stability rise – be they economic, environmental, geo-political, or health related – our fear instinctively rises and our confidence falls.  Such challenges call for leaders and their organisations to be agile and ready to transform, adding further change and uncertainty for employees.

So,  how can we successfully build ‘thriving’ in the face of fear, for ourselves, our organisations and our teams?

Of the many terms that have evolved to describe the new world order, VUCA, (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), is perhaps the most well-known, coined way back in 1987 by the US military as they sought to describe the evolution of modern warfare in Afghanistan. The business world jumped at the phrase that describes the challenges we all feel and was quick to call for our leaders to become more agile, ambidextrous, creative, purposeful and visionary.

The trouble is that all these qualities are so much harder for us when we and those we work with are fearful. We are quite simply designed to behave in the opposite way when under threat – to react, protect, avoid risk, play small, stay quiet. It is essential that we understand the dynamics of fear if we want to grow courage and confidence in ourselves and others, in a world that will inevitably continue to be full of risk and challenge.

Let’s start with what we know from neuroscience

We have three nervous system circuits. They have technical terms*1 but here I use layman labels:

1.   Thriving – when we feel safe and connected, we have access to our creativity, learning agility, strategic thinking and wellbeing. In this mode we believe ourselves to be deserving and we believe the world to be full of
possibility and promise. Leaders are often called to be in thriving mode – for ourselves, our teams and our organisations. And, of course, this is where we would all love to be – where there is fun, creativity and curiosity! We may feel ‘off balance’ when we are not there.

2.   Surviving – when we feel under threat, we move to high alert to mobilise us to fight and/or flee to survive.  We strive, focus on competency, and compete with each other. We are often angry and believing ourselves to be right and others wrong, we are quick to resist the views of others. In this mode we are warriors, believing that resources are scarce, and that the world is working against us.  You may recognise this in yourselves and your colleagues. Many of us become stuck in this mode. *2 Survival-thinking and behaviour dominates our workplaces.  The advantage of survival is that it provides the energy that mobilises us to change and drive change.  The challenge is to reap the advantages without the collateral damage of blame, resistance, and exhaustion. To become conscious and intentional in how we use and manage this energy and move back to thriving.

3.   Suffering – when our system is overwhelmed and collapses, often numbing out to minimise what we feel. We may lose access to our competencies and functioning in this mode. Here we believe ourselves to victims and the world to be hopeless.  We withdraw, disengage, and may shut down. * 6 We may experience this circuit temporarily in response to real time events such as grief, loss or missing out, or we may become stuck in a repeating experience based on traumatic past events (PTSD). *3 The latter may require specialist therapeutic support, but grief and loss, however painful, are regular parts of life and this mode can support us to heal, recover and transform. Learning how to manage suffering in ourselves and how to support others at times of need, is key to resilience, adult development, and leadership.

All three circuits have evolved to support us. All three play a role in our learning and growth.  Being able to grow our awareness and intentional choice to switch across these three circuits, is a key to our wellbeing, our development and is critical to our effective leadership of teams and organisations.

How can we grow our awareness and intentional choice?

Fundamental to this is a realisation that our thinking and our emotions do not have to rule us.  There is a person behind every thought and behind every emotion that can independently observe and scrutinise that thinking and feeling. I like to call this the David Attenborough principle; rather like Sir David can observe without judgment the behaviour of animals and plants, you can do the same for yourself and others. This separation from, and observation of, your own experience is critical. Judgment leads us into reactive thinking and behaviour. Observation frees us and gives us choice and compassion.

Key practices for ourselves

1.          Taking a moment…interrupting the automatic response by pausing. Traditionally called ‘Thinking before you speak or act’…. You can practice this ‘muscle ‘by pausing and noticing your reactions, before you respond to each email or text. Lots of opportunities there!

2.          Reflecting ….taking time to reflect on your day or your week. This is an art we are losing in an age where we are constantly ‘on’ and the habits of journalling, meditation and reflection are diminishing. Start with regularly reflecting on your leadership – what’s gone well, what are you still learning, what do you need next.  Take time to also identify and plan your strategies for the next day or week.

3.          Switching circuits….there is an increased understanding of how we can switch circuits.*4  This assumes we first realise the circuit we are in and then intentionally practice ‘thriving’ behaviours such as curiosity and gratitude to re-programme our thinking and emotional responses.

How can we create a thriving workplace?

It is also incumbent on us as leaders to reflect on how this understanding can help us to lead others.  The reality of the uncertainty and speed of change in today’s world means that our human survival circuit, and the circuits of those we lead, will be triggered in some way. There are also organisational moments of intense stress and anxiety, such as restructurings, mergers, acquisitions etc. as well as a multitude of personal life experiences that may trigger us as individuals at any time.  The ‘switch’ is to intentionally and consistently seek to build a strong sense of safety and connection in and with our teams and organisations and to nurture the thriving behaviours of curiosity, compassion and creativity to take on and tackle the challenges and change we face.

Six leadership priorities that work

1.          Leadership starts with self –Understanding your fears and your motivations and how to intentionally self-regulate deepens your ability to empathise and see what others need and also grows authenticity and trust in the eyes of others.

2.          Face fears and difficulties in the eye – acknowledge realities and look for and name what is unsaid or unseen. This diminishes the perceived threat of the unknown. By allowing our fears, we allow ourselves to see them for what they are and to develop strategies to tackle them. This brings relief in our nervous system. The threat has been seen. There is a plan. Do this for yourself and for your teams.

3.          Create safety where you can – even when there is risk we can still create psychological safety in how we talk about the issues,. We can provide structure around how we will proceed which gives our nervous system a sense of calm, and we can reassure through regular communication. Find ways to create certainties where you can. Rule 101 of any restructuring, keep talking to your people.

4.          Build your leadership presence and personal connection – One of the biggest threats we respond to emotionally is the fear of not being noticed or seen.  Reaching out, being present and paying attention to people goes a long way, no matter what else is going on. Feedback is about noticing people. Notice more often. As Maya Angelou so eloquently wrote “I’ve learnt that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”

5.          Take care of beginnings and endings – We are also instinctively fearful when our relationships are threatened. As the world demands us to move between teams and stakeholders more frequently, we need to pay attention to how we join and leave relationships and manage these key transitions well for others. Truly agile workplaces pay exceptional attention to how people join and leave.

6.          Awaken values and purpose – values work like a keel on a ship, continuously bringing us back from the winds that threaten us, whilst purpose in our work acts like a rudder, leading the way forward in any storm.  Strengthening the why of what needs to be done and the visibility of how values and purpose are present, helps us to steady the ship, cut through noise, overcome fear and ignites creativity, foresight and commitment.

All of this is, of course, easier to write about than to do in practice. But together we are stronger. Enlist the support of a trusted leadership coach, supervisor, mentor or buddy to grow your awareness and intentional leadership practice.

*1  Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory
*2 Robert Anderson & William Adams Mastering Leadership
*3 Peter Levine Waking the Tiger
*4 MarieLee Adams Change your questions, change your life