The key to successful leadership: integrity

In her book Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, Sylvia Ann Hewlett describes gravitas as a core characteristic of executive presence, which she defines as “an amalgam of qualities that true leaders exude, a presence that telegraphs you’re in charge or deserve to be.” This amalgam of qualities includes, most importantly, integrity.

Our titles at work mean very little. We earn respect every day by the way we behave. How leaders act and carry themselves reassures and inspires those around them. Employees take their cues from the leaders they work with, as their behavior becomes part of the culture of the organization. Employees follow leaders who can galvanize, energize and inspire them. And leaders with executive presence garner respect through consistent behaviors, particularly in times of difficulty. That’s when employees will want a leader who shows courage, and they will be looking for signs of incongruence.

Leaders who are true not only to others but to themselves are not afraid to show who they are and what matters to them. Making the tough decisions takes courage of conviction and a strong belief in our choices. Leaders who can hold steadfast to a goal during the tough times show others that they’re willing to fight for what they believe in.

Being in a leadership position demands a high level of integrity. Leaders are entrusted with the livelihoods and well-being of the employees who look to them to exemplify the values of the organization. Inevitably, leaders will make some bad decisions or mistakes that will call their integrity into question. Taking full responsibility for those decisions takes humility, authenticity, and courage.

Strength is defined as optimism, decisive action, perseverance and taking responsibility. Honor is defined as integrity, ethical behavior and open communication. Leaders who take responsibility for their actions and have the courage to admit when they are wrong are seen as having high integrity. Those who do so with humility are seen as strong.

Take accountability. Focus on driving results is important, but effective leaders know that how you go about doing so is far more critical to success. Those who are open about their mistakes and who apologize and make amends are not perceived as less capable. Rather, they are seen as human, approachable, decisive, and trustworthy.

Do what you say you will do. By following through on their commitments, no matter how onerous, leaders who show their teams that they can be counted on are seen as trusted entities. In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown defines integrity as “choosing courage over comfort; choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast or easy; and practicing your values, not just professing them.” Leaders who can be relied upon are seen as authentic.

Ask for feedback and mean it. Strong leaders listen and evaluate before making decisions. By asking what others are thinking, and what direction they think an organization should go, leaders invite their teams to think about the business as their own. This sense of ownership and accountability is strengthened when their opinions count.

Embrace diverse perspectives. The greater-than-the-sum-of-our-parts concept applies if all the talent and energy of the employees in the company are engaged to the profit of the enterprise and to the creation of a healthy and dynamic corporate culture.

Strong leaders fundamentally believe in creating a culture that is adaptable and open to change. And they’re not afraid to challenge the status quo when things get challenging. This takes both a courageous mindset and a willingness to admit mistakes. Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right, over what is fast, fun or easy, and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.

Finding flow in a distracted world

We all deal with distractions. In an increasingly connected world, it’s difficult to put down the device and focus on only one conversation, one interaction or one task. This stands to reason given the remote working environment that the pandemic has ushered in for many of us over the past two years. But looking around in any place where people have gathered, most of them will be looking at their phones, despite physically being with other people. Could we have lost the ability to communicate through any means other than through the screen on our device?

The reality is that if we’re staring at a screen while with other people, we’re not truly present. Our attention is split between the people we’re supposed to be spending time with and that tweet or Facebook® post that just can’t wait. Being truly present, whether in person or online, is about mindfulness. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “With mindfulness, you can establish yourself in the present in order to touch the wonders of life that are available in that moment.” If we’re not paying attention, we may miss what really matters in a conversation, interaction, or relationship.

Mindfulness is the key to being present. When we pay attention to one thing, we increase the amount of grey matter in our hippocampus through a process called gyrification. We physically increase the surface of the brain, and enhance our ability to process challenging cognitive tasks and solve complex problems. Mindfulness demands that we don’t multitask. Instead, single-tasking gives us the opportunity to filter out the noise and focus on what is most important.

If we subscribe to the single-tasking approach, then we must choose our distractions carefully in order to manage them. Distractions come in all shapes and sizes, and often without warning. Some of the usual culprits that distract us no matter what time of day it is are email and social media. Of course, that inbox isn’t going to clear itself out, so we have to consciously decide when to tackle it. Instead of reacting to emails as they come into our inbox, turning off the email notification alert and scheduling a few times during the day when we are not at our most productive or energetic is a perfect time for this kind of work. Checking in on social media feeds once in a while as opposed to throughout the day will also free up significant periods of time that can be used more productively.

Time of day also has an impact on our productivity. Some of us are more productive first thing in the morning, whereas others may like to ease into high-energy tasks later in the day. Creating a routine and following it consistently creates physiological energy spikes that can fuel us to power through a task. The repetition of the routine focuses the mind and trains our brains to reproduce that focus and keep us operating at our peak. Peak times are different for each of us. The key is finding yours and using it to get to your flow state. As Somerset Maugham says, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

If we are immersed in a task that demands a great deal of cognitive energy, it can take up to fifteen minutes to get back to the same level of immersion in that task after being distracted. When we are in a state where our work is flowing seamlessly, and we feel both challenged and capable, we’re far more likely to deliver an outstanding result. Here are a few ways to find flow, reduce distraction, and increase our productivity:

Get focused. We can struggle to focus our minds when faced with too much to do and too little time to do it all. A quick way to do this is by paying attention to one sight or sound in our environment, isolating it from others for a few moments. This focuses the mind, enabling us to become fully present in the moment. Looking at a light for a few moments or listening to a specific sound (rain outside the window, the hum of an air conditioner, birds chirping) can help us to regain focus and mindfully go back to what we were working on.

Batch, don’t dip. Our brains like patterns and make meaning out of what we are doing by putting tasks into categories. Things that take a lot of mental processing, such as creating a presentation, writing a report, or designing a creative solution to a problem take up a lot of mental energy. Other tasks that are less demanding of our cognitive processes are things like email and tasks that we repeat often and are practically on autopilot. If we batch up tasks that are similar and do them together, it is less taxing for our brains. So if you’re clearing our your inbox, batch this up with other low cognitive tasks to focus on this for a period of time. Then move to that presentation and other demanding tasks to keep your brain’s energy focused in the right place.

Use your energy cycles. Scheduling specific time frames to get the important tasks done helps us make the most of the time we have available to us. Making the most of natural energy peaks and taking breaks from cognitively demanding tasks when energy ebbs trains your brain to anticipate cognitive loads and gets you into flow quicker. If you are more creative in the morning, focus on the demanding tasks then, and leave the less demanding activities such as email for later in the day. Taking brain breaks from cognitively demanding tasks every 60-90 minutes can also help to maintain and replenish energy levels through the day. Stepping away from technology, walking in nature, chatting with a friend or loved one or engaging in a creative pursuit for a while can help to give our brains a rest and renew our focus when we come back to lifting heavy mental weights.

Break it down to get it done. Procrastination is the enemy of efficiency. Focusing on getting the hard stuff out of the way now gives us more time to focus on the things we enjoy later. Ranking tasks in order of importance lets us know which ones to prioritize. And breaking down large goals into small manageable tasks can also help us make progress, as we can enjoy the satisfaction of crossing items off that never-ending to-do list.

Practice strategic ignorance. Not only are those beeps and pings distracting to others around us, they often elicit a Pavlovian response as we stop what we’re doing to check the incoming email or social media update that is heralded by the sound. Using the do not disturb feature and turning your phone over so that you cannot see the screen, or even better, putting it away in a drawer while focusing on a task, can minimize the temptation to doom scroll through your feed.

Find flow. Creating a distraction-free zone is critical to finding flow. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow, flow is “the optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” The passage of time is unnoticed as we are completely immersed and present in what we are doing. It is this state that enables the most progress on any task, and delivers satisfaction for a job well done. But this only happens if we can resist the urge to check things like email, social media, text messages, etc., set do not disturb time to enable us to be uninterrupted, and set achievable goals that we can realistically achieve in the time we set aside to work on them.

In a time when distractions are everywhere, and not going away anytime soon, our ability to focus is constantly challenged and we’ll always feel as though we do not have enough hours in the day to get it all done. Willpower is an inexhaustible resource, and finding ways to give our brains the energy they need to cut through the noise and focus on getting the right things done is critical to finding flow. We all have so many expectations and demands on our time; when we understand the resources we do have at our disposal to control the distractions in our lives, we can apply these techniques to help us do what we need to do with renewed energy and focus. Because as Seth Godin put it: “You don’t need more time in your day. You need to decide.”

To deal with burnout, add a sacred pause

Burnout has been on the rise—pre-pandemic, the World Health Organization declared burnout an occupational disease, with about 53 percent of workers experiencing it. But the last two years have pushed that number above 90 percent, and it’s the top reason people cite for why they quit during the Great Resignation.

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion brought on by long-term stress. We can be left feeling like a sailboat without a breath of wind to push us forward. It’s characterized by three components:

·       Emotional exhaustion: A feeling of depletion that can create insomnia, impaired concentration, anxiety and depression, anger, and physical symptoms like heart palpitations, shortness of breath, GI pain, dizziness, headaches, and fainting.

·       Decreased sense of efficacy: An overwhelming sense of futility that creates feelings of apathy, hopelessness, and irritability. It may result in a lack of productivity and poor performance.

·       Mental distance: The depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion for others or ourselves. It includes isolation and creates feelings of negativity and cynicism.

Giving ourselves time and space to recalibrate our nervous systems, and regain a sense of control is critical to dealing with the threat of burnout. According to Sandra Dalton-Smith MD, this requires a shift from the focus on performing in spite of the situation, making us chronically tired, burned out and sleep deprived, to an intentional focus on self-care. She explains that we need to focus on seven kinds of rest. Here are some ways to make the most of each.

  • PHYSICAL rest is any activity that releases tension and restores calm to the physical body. This includes sleeping and napping. Active rest is also critical to our wellbeing, with movement being one of the most important forms of rest for our bodies and minds. Try yoga or stretching or take a gentle walk, ideally in nature, to both calm the mind and release stiffness in the body. Forest bathing has been proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve our overall feeling of wellbeing. Our hunter killer cells in the immune system are boosted following time in nature, as trees release phytoncides, essential oils that protect them from disease into the air around them. As we inhale these oils, our immune system function is increased, along with improvements in mood and focus.
  • MENTAL rest – any activity that clears your mind, quiets your thoughts, and helps to put things into perspective. Our brains can only focus with intensity on cognitively demanding tasks for 90 minutes. Taking a regular brain break by shifting from a heavily cognitive task to a creative outlet such as playing an instrument, painting or drawing, taking a walk or run (or even taking a short nap) or reconnecting with a friend or loved one can help us come back to the task at hand refreshed and with renewed focus.    
  • SENSORY rest – reducing the amount of sensory sights, sounds and smells you are subjected to by either changing your environment. Step away from technology and the blue light that is so destructive to our eyes and ability to sleep. Unplug or turn off electronics, stay away from gadgets for at least an hour before sleep, and make your bedroom a sanctuary by removing clutter and lowering the lights to get your body ready to sleep well. Meditation can also help to short circuit the sensory overload that we are subjected to constantly.
  • CREATIVE rest – any activity that exposes us to something unstructured and unproductive, like doing easy arts and crafts, or simply sitting comfortably and watching nature. Taking time to appreciate time alone can be good for both body and mind, and working with our hands and using our senses fully can help to relieve stress, put us in a flow state, and help us solve difficult problems more efficiently. Wasting time well is critical to replenishing our energy reserves, as our brains use 10 times the energy of our bodies. Tapping into our creative brain can help replenish those energy levels, getting our thinking brain back into top gear when we need it.
  • EMOTIONAL rest – giving ourselves time to examine the emotions we are feeling without judgement can help us navigate through them much more easily. Negative emotions are an important part of the human experience; the key is not to become paralyzed by them. Labeling the emotion shifts our locus of control, particularly when dealing with others. Thinking “I am feeling irritable” versus “They are irritating me” can help us remove judgement and take back control of our emotional response to situations. It also helps us to stop compulsively people pleasing, by learning that No is a complete sentence.
  • SOCIAL rest – surrounding ourselves with people who are positive and supportive and avoiding those who bring negativity and criticism into our lives lets us be our authentic selves. Finding our community of supporters who will be there in good times and bad creates a support structure that we can lean on in difficult times. Taking the time to focus on those whom we are grateful for can help us to feel more positive and optimistic. Expressing our appreciation to these individuals by sending them a note, picking up the phone to tell them how we feel, or simply spending quality time together can give us the social support and the rest we need. And knowing that we are not alone can encourage us to reach out to support others in their time of need.
  • SPIRITUAL rest – adding prayer or meditation to our daily routine connects us more closely with a greater power and helps us to be at peace with our place in the universe. It can also do wonders for our minds and bodies. The sense of awe that a spiritual practice creates curbs our fight/flight/freeze response, reducing cortisol production and creating an anti-inflammatory response in our bodies by reducing cytokines, the proteins that promote inflammation. Practicing this form of mindfulness also makes us off autopilot, makes us more present, and connects us to others at a deeper level.

Consciously shifting our perspective to create optimistic neural pathways takes repetition, practice, and persistence. The more we can nurture our recovery from stress by practicing the 7 types of rest our minds and bodies need, the more capable we are of avoiding and overcoming burnout. We cannot stop the wind, but we can adjust our sails.

Moments matter: Cultivating kindness with gratitude

It’s easy for unpleasant emotions to dominate our awareness, as our brains are wired to constantly scan for and identify threats. But we can train our brains to be more positive. Gratitude, through a conscious awareness and repeated focus on the good things that come our way, amplifies our appreciation of both our blessings and our benefactors.

One of the major literary figures in the first third of the twentieth century, G.K. Chesterton, wrote: “One is never lacking in opportunities to be happy, because around every corner is another gift waiting to surprise us, and it will surprise us, if we can achieve control over our natural tendencies to make comparisons, to take things for granted and to feel entitled.” When we reach out to others through random acts of kindness, we build empathy. Showing kindness to others is an act of love, and in doing so, we can overcome fear, become kinder to ourselves, and become happier.

Happiness is causal, bringing more benefits than simply feeling good. Happy people have been shown to be more successful, more socially engaged, and healthier than unhappy people. Researchers studying the impact of stressors on illness discovered that people who experience a lot of positive emotions such as gratitude, love, or happiness are less likely to catch a cold or the flu than those who experience more negative emotions. Focusing on positive emotions boosts our immune system.

Gratitude can change your life for the better. A 2012 University of Kentucky study showed that intentionally noticing the good things in life and being grateful for them builds neural pathways to optimism, enhances empathy, and reduces aggression. Multiple studies have revealed a strong link between gratitude and well-being. An attitude of gratitude improves psychological health, increasing happiness and reducing depression. By focusing on the good things in life and doing good for others, we can reduce toxic emotions like envy, resentment, frustration, and regret. But gratitude is not just good for our brains. It improves our physical health, too. Positive psychology research published in American Psychologist shows that grateful people experience fewer aches and pains, exercise more often and have regular medical check-ups. They also sleep better. Writing in a gratitude journal fifteen minutes before bed helped them to fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.

Contemplate the good.

Keeping a gratitude journal to remind us to count our blessings is a powerful way to focus on the positive aspects of life. And it’s a powerful way to build a book of memories to look back on years later. Expressing gratitude directly also gives us an instant boost of happiness. Gratitude changes the way we interact with the world and promotes thoughts that are conducive to recovery from stressful events.

Focusing on the positive aspects of each day shifts our perspective. Writing them down helps us keep them in mind. Reflecting on moments of gratitude builds neural pathways to optimism, regardless of whether we naturally see the glass as half full or half empty.

Pay it forward.

Random acts of kindness can dramatically improve our happiness. Stanford students who were asked to perform five random acts of kindness over a week reported much higher happiness levels than those of a control group. The acts of kindness were appreciated by the recipients, and those who were giving felt good about themselves. In his book, Flourish, Martin Seligman writes, “Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

Consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude helps us to avoid being overwhelmed by day-to-day stressors by training our brains to notice the positive. Keeping our gratitude higher than our expectations keeps things in perspective.  And paying the good stuff forward keeps us in a positive mental state that makes us more appreciative of our own blessings, and kinder to others.

A world of possibility exists in every interaction, every relationship and every experience of our lives. There is no limit on the amount of goodness we can put into the world. As Mother Teresa said; “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” What small ripples can you create to make every moment matter?

Feeling stressed? Cultivate gratitude

As we continue to deal with the fallout from COVID-19, we can quickly become overwhelmed, and it’s easy for unpleasant emotions to dominate our awareness. But we can train our brains to be more positive, even in times such as this, by consciously cultivating gratitude. Gratitude is a mind-set that enables us to seek out new experiences. It creates and maintains the positive attitude of the explorer in each of us. And it helps us to overcome challenges that without it, may feel insurmountable. It also deepens our connection to others, giving us the courage to reach out, and broadening our perspective.

We cannot stop the waves but we can learn to surf

Happiness is causal and brings more benefits than just feeling good. Happy people have been shown to be more successful, more socially engaged and healthier than unhappy people. Researchers studied the impact of emotions on illness and discovered that focusing on positive emotions boosts our immune system.

Having an attitude of gratitude does not mean never experiencing negative emotions. Negative thoughts have their place, particularly when dealing with events over which we have no control, such as a global pandemic. Regardless of our thinking style, most of us find such events extremely stressful. Consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude helps us to avoid being overwhelmed by day-to-day stressors by training our brains to notice the positive. Keeping our gratitude higher than our expectations keeps things in perspective.

Shifting to a more optimistic mindset

Gratitude can change your life for the better. A 2012 University of Kentucky study showed that intentionally noticing the good things in life and being grateful for them builds neural pathways to optimism, enhances empathy, and reduces aggression. Multiple studies have revealed a strong link between gratitude and well-being. An attitude of gratitude improves psychological health, increasing happiness and reducing depression. By focusing on the good things in life, we can reduce toxic emotions like fear, envy, resentment, frustration, and regret.

But gratitude is not just good for our brains. It improves our physical health, too. Positive psychology research published in American Psychologist shows that grateful people experience fewer aches and pains, exercise more often and have regular medical check-ups. They also sleep better. Writing in a gratitude journal fifteen minutes before bed helped them to fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. Keeping a gratitude journal to remind us to count our blessings is a powerful way to focus on the positive aspects of life when there seem to be more negatives than we can count. It’s a positive way to shift our mindset, and build a book of good memories to look back on years later.

Each heartbeat pumps 20 percent of the blood in our bodies to our brains. The harder we think, the more oxygen the brain uses. Of the 50,000 thoughts that run through our minds each day, 70 percent are negative. imagine what we could achieve if we could focus all that brainpower on the good stuff.

Consciously contemplate the good

Everyday moments hold opportunities to practice optimism if we look at them through a lens of gratitude. Focusing on the positive each day can shift our perspective. Writing down the good things in our lives helps us keep them in mind. Writing in a gratitude journal for 15 minutes before bed every day can help you sleep better, as reflecting on moments of gratitude builds neural pathways to optimism, regardless of whether we naturally see the glass as half full or half empty.

By writing down things we are grateful for every day for a week and then looking back on the list, we can shift our perspective and appreciate the small gifts and simple pleasures that we so often overlook, and which may seem trivial in times of crisis. This may feel awkward in the beginning, as we have a natural tendency to focus on the negative in our lives, but persistence counts. Within a few weeks, you may find that this new task shifts your mindset to a more positive one.

Put it in writing

Expressing gratitude to those who you are thankful to have in your life is a powerful way to boost your own happiness. Writing a note of appreciation shifts the focus from ourselves for a moment, and on to the other person. By recognizing and acknowledging the impact others have in our lives, we not only make them feel good, but we also feel good ourselves.

Extending the appreciation of the good in life by sharing our observations with others has been known to increase happiness both for the person doing the sharing and the recipient of the message. A gesture in the form of a handwritten thank-you note or even an email to let employees know how much you appreciate them goes a long way to gaining loyalty and building trust. Employees who feel appreciated and valued become ambassadors for the team and the company, and the return on that investment is immeasurable.

Pay it forward

Random acts of kindness can dramatically improve our happiness. Stanford students who were asked to perform five random acts of kindness over a week reported much higher happiness levels than those of a control group. The acts of kindness were appreciated by the recipients, and those who were giving felt good about themselves. In his book, Flourish, Martin Seligman writes, “Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

Gratitude, through a conscious awareness and repeated focus on the good things that come our way, amplifies our appreciation of both our blessings and our benefactors. While different personality traits may predispose individuals to different levels of well-being, in her book The How of Happiness, researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky writes: “Your actions, thoughts, and words account for 40 percent of your happiness, which is significant.” By consciously cultivating gratitude, we can boost our happiness and our health, two things that the world needs more than ever right now.

Excerpts of this article are from Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World

Choosing our way: Resilience in turbulent times

To say these are challenging and unprecedented times, would be an understatement. In times such as this, it is easy for our amygdala, the tiny almond-shaped group of nuclei deep within the temporal lobes, often called the “lizard brain”, to take over. The amygdala is responsible for emotional and social processing, and most importantly, for fear-conditioning. It activates our fight-flight-freeze response when we sense a threat. Through this activation, our “feeling brain” is cut off from our “thinking brain,” as the prefrontal cortex, responsible for complex processes such as memory, planning, reasoning, and problem-solving shuts down, and our amygdala takes over. This survival mechanism lets us react to events before the rational brain has time to mull things over. It reacts before we have a chance to think about our response. And this automatic fight-flight-freeze response is mobilized when we perceive any threat.

Right now, there is a major threat lurking out there. All of us have some level of fear about the situation in which we find ourselves. We worry about our loved ones, our friends, and our communities as we collectively try to navigate the uncertainty created by a new pandemic. As we move through uncharted territory, it is more important than ever for us to focus on our mental and emotional state, fuel our minds with positive thoughts, move through each day one step at a time, and do what we can to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Here are some ways to calm your amygdala and take control of your response to the situation:

GET (RE)CONNECTED

Schedule Zoom, Skype of FaceTime calls with friends, past clients, and colleagues. Just to check in and see how everyone is doing. For leaders, during times such as this, it is especially important to extend additional support to your teams by reaching out more regularly. No-one ever complained about too much communication, and during a time of isolation for many, simply maintaining contact and showing your teams that you care makes all the difference. Make every communication count.

We can all control how we respond, react, and engage with each other during challenging times. If there is anything good to come out of dealing with a pandemic, it is that we have an opportunity to recognize what is most important – neighbors helping each other, strangers reaching out to support those who are struggling to cope, and families learning to prioritize their time together. Perhaps we are learning to appreciate the only thing that really matters – the people we care about. I hope you will take advantage of the unique opportunity this situation presents to embrace a new way of collaborating, and a deeper way of connecting and supporting each other.

KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE

Each heartbeat pumps 20 percent of the blood in our bodies to our brains. The harder we think, the more oxygen the brain uses. Of the 50,000 thoughts that run through our minds each day, 70 percent are negative (particularly during times of stress and anxiety). Imagine what we could achieve if we could focus all that brainpower on the good stuff.

Studies have shown that people who practice gratitude are healthier, happier, more effective, and more resilient. They report better physical and psychological health.  A 2012 University of Kentucky study showed that intentionally noticing the good things in life and being grateful for them builds neural pathways to optimism, enhances empathy, and reduces aggression. By writing down three good things every day for a week and then looking back on the list, we can shift our perspective to one of appreciating the small gifts, simple pleasures, and even people that we so often overlook, focusing on the blessings we have rather than the hardships we face.

Today, I encourage you to ask yourself:

What were three good things that happened to me today? (look for the extraordinary in the ordinary)

What am I grateful for today? (list three things)

Who do I appreciate having in my life? (write down why you appreciate them, then share this with them in person if you are sheltering in place together, or in a note, an email, a text or a phone call if not)

GET MOVING

Physical activity is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to keep your brain healthy. Exercise can boost blood flow and other positive nutrients to the brain, increase your levels of dopamine and generate new brain cells that can help the brain self-regulate and calm down. Walking can help you clear your mind, decrease anxious feelings, improve your mood and burn some calories all at the same time.

With gyms, clubs and community centers closed, we all have to get creative to stay active and healthy. Fitness gurus are stepping up to offer free virtual workouts, and there are a multitude of easy home workouts out there. Many of us are working from home and may find ourselves more inclined than usual to sit in front of a screen for hours on end. Replacing two hours of sitting with two hours of standing every day lowers blood sugar and cholesterol (and burns calories!). Research shows that walking also enhances creative thinking, so walking while on the phone or when brainstorming with colleagues on conference calls can help us generate ideas. Working at a standing desk if you have one, or taking a two-minute walk every hour can help offset the negative health effects from prolonged sitting.

GET OUTSIDE

Nature is a powerful tool for re-balancing the body and mind. It enables us to tap into our natural sense of wonder and has even been proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress-hormone production, boost immune system, and improve overall feelings of well-being. Nippon Medical School in Tokyo measured the activity of human natural killer cells in the immune systems of people before and after a visit to the woods. They saw significant increases in the cell activity immediately, and for up to a month following a weekend in the woods. Scientists have discovered that various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, are emitted by trees to protect themselves from germs and insects. Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better – inhaling phytoncide seems to actually improve immune system function. If you are able, take a walk outside, feel the earth beneath your feet, and breathe in some fresh air (not in or around groups of people of course).

TRY SOME BELLY BREATHING

Not all breaths are created equal. Most of us breathe shallowly the majority of the time. And it’s worse when we’re stressed or anxious. The vagus nerve, which originates in the brain stem and extends all the way down to the tongue, vocal chords, heart, lungs, and other internal organs, is an important element of the parasympathetic nervous system (the system that controls our rest, relaxation, and digestion response and calms us down). When stimulated, the vagus nerve will counteract the sympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for activating our fight-flight-freeze response and causing us stress). When the vagal response kicks in, it reduces our heart rate and blood pressure, releasing an array of anti-stress enzymes and hormones such as prolactin, vasopressin, acetylcholine, and oxytocin. It tames inflammation, allergic responses, and tension headaches, relieving anxiety and depression.

To calm your nervous system and stimulate the vagus nerve, try some deep belly breathing. This can counteract the high levels of cortisol that we experience in stressful times. Deep breathing is not only good for your body, but it also calms your mind. Diaphragmatic breathing is characterized by an expansion of the abdomen instead of the chest. Take a deep inhalation through your nose while counting to five, hold your breath for a count of six, and then slowly exhale while counting to seven. Studies show that about ten minutes of deep breathing is sufficient to calm us down. The key is to have the breaths come from your belly, and slow down the exhale as much as possible.

CHOOSE WONDER OVER WORRY

Harnessing the power of wonder can short-circuit negative emotions and reduce fear. The negative emotions that drive our fight-flight-freeze response cause inflammation throughout the body as they increase cortisol and adrenaline production. Studies have shown that individuals who recall more experiences of awe in a month-long period have lower levels of cytokines (the proteins that cause all that inflammation) than those who did not harness awe.

Awe is in the smile of a loved one as you spend precious time together, the kindness of people reaching out to help each other in difficult times, the laughter shared with a colleague comparing funny working from home stories, the feel of a gentle breeze on your skin, the rise of the moon on a clear and starry night, or music that makes your heart soar. If we can seek out and harness wonder, we can start to see the world around us through a lens of positivity that builds optimism and reduces fear. Moments of wonder are all around us, every day. We only have to take the time to notice them.

SLEEP LIKE A CAVEMAN

Sleep is more than beauty rest. It’s also brain rest, and is one of the most important aspects of well-being. A good night’s sleep keeps our heart healthy, reduces stress, makes us more alert, reduces chronic inflammation, improves our memory, can help us lose weight, and may even prevent cancer. Research indicates that people who get six or fewer hours of sleep a night have higher blood levels of inflammatory proteins (cytokines) and lower levels of our defensive T-cells than those who get six hours or more. Sufficient and restful sleep also enables us to better fight infection by priming our fever reaction, enabling our immune system to more effectively wage war on infections and viruses. Keep your immune system in tip-top shape by getting a good night’s sleep.

It’s easy for unpleasant emotions to dominate our awareness, particularly during times of uncertainty and fear. Our brains are wired to constantly scan for and identify threats. But we can train our brains to be more positive in spite of the current situation. We can’t necessarily change our environment, but we all have the power to shift our response to that environment by building resilience. Together, we will get through these times.

As Victor Frankl said: “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.”

Learn more about building resilience in Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World

In Employee Engagement, Truth and Trust Go Hand in Hand

LIquote trustWe all look for connections that make us feel a part of something bigger. We want to be recognized, acknowledged, and feel as though we fit in. This sense of belonging to a common cause or campaign is reinforced by communication, connecting us with others. We also want to follow leaders who we feel we can trust and respect. As Amy Cuddy says: “When we meet someone new we quickly answer two questions: ‘Can I trust this person?’ and ‘Can I respect this person?’. We prioritize trust over competence because from an evolutionary perspective, it’s more crucial to our survival to know whether a person deserves our trust.” It is even more crucial in the work environment to know we are working for a leader we can trust. Leaders who are successful in building trust consistently demonstrate five key behaviors:

They are clear about their values.

Leaders are expected to consistently demonstrate the values espoused by the organization. Employees will watch carefully for any signs that this is not the case. More than just a list of words posted in the lunchroom, values should be an integral part of the company culture, built into hiring and onboarding practices. A major American airline has seen significant success applying this practice, hiring only friendly, warm, enthusiastic people who align with their values. Executives are expected to lead by example and to trust their teams to do what’s right for their customers. Employees are held accountable for upholding the values every day, and they in turn hold their leaders accountable to do the same.

They are consistent through the good times and the bad.

When things are going well, it’s easy to be aligned and congruent with our values. When difficulties arise, it becomes more challenging to stay the course. A deep level of self-awareness helps leaders to recognize ineffective behaviors when they do happen and to take purposeful action to re-align with their values. By demonstrating consistency during the tough times, these leaders remain trustworthy.

They embrace diverse perspectives.

Leaders have a powerful opportunity to leverage their greatest asset: people. By making the most of diverse talent that has a rich set of expertise, experience, and cultural backgrounds, leaders are better placed to serve a global customer base. Beyond creating a climate of inclusion, these efforts help leaders build a resilient and resourceful organization that is open to new perspectives. The greater-than-the-sum-of-our-parts concept applies if all the talent and energy of the employees in the company is engaged to the profit of the enterprise and to the creation of a healthy and dynamic corporate culture. Leaders who are open to diverse perspectives and ideas can harness the innovation that comes from different points of view.

They take accountability.

Focus on driving results is important, but effective leaders know that how you go about doing so is far more critical to success. Inevitably leaders will make mistakes. Those who are open about their mistakes and who apologize and make amends are not perceived as less capable. Rather, they are seen as human, approachable, and trustworthy. Fred Kiel quantified a leader’s integrity in a seven-year study for his book, Return on Character. Kiel’s study showed that employee engagement is 26 percent higher with high-integrity CEOs. Leaders who take responsibility for their actions and have the courage to admit when they are wrong are seen as having high integrity. Those who do so with humility are seen as strong.

They ask for feedback and mean it.

Great leaders listen and evaluate before making decisions. By asking what others are thinking, and in which direction they think an organization should go, leaders invite their teams to think about the business as their own. This sense of ownership and accountability is strengthened when their opinions count. Leaders who listen can create connected networks and then harness the power of those communities to feel the pulse of their business. By encouraging accountability across the organization for constant improvement, every team member also becomes responsible for delivering results. This sense of responsibility empowers them to drive solutions and deliver value for customers in innovative ways.

The days of the hero leading the charge are over. The very best thing we can do for any group or individual is to give them power over their own lives. The real job of the leader is to set the path, align teams with the objectives, help them overcome obstacles (when needed), and then step out of the way. Trusting others’ capability to deliver and giving them the space to do so is a powerful motivational force.  Leaders who can demonstrate integrity, empathy and tenacity in turbulent times garner both respect and trust.

Learn more about employee engagement and leadership in Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World

To win in the market, listen to the voice of the team

LIquote voice of teamAs human beings we look for connections that make us feel a part of something bigger. We want to be recognized, acknowledged, and feel as though we fit in. This sense of belonging to a common cause or campaign is reinforced by communication, connecting us with others. Employees who feel that they have been heard and have a seat at the table, and a voice, are more likely to be emotionally engaged in the success of the company. Follow-up and communication around decisions that have taken employee feedback into account (even if the end result is not what they were hoping for) connects employees at a deeper level with the organization as they know that their voices matter. Key to this connection is creating effective feedback loops.

What do you think?

Having effective feedback loops for employees enables leaders to harness the collective wisdom of the individuals doing the work every day. Marriott International manages more than twenty brands and 3,900 properties in seventy-two countries. It employs more than 325,000 people around the world. Bill Marriott became president in November 1964 and CEO in 1972. Currently serving as chairman of the board, Marriott emphasizes how vital two-way communication is in keeping his employees fully engaged, “Every morning we have departmental stand-up meetings at our hotels. We’ll identify the ‘theme of the day’: What needs work? Where are we slipping a little? Then it’s all hands on deck to work on improving those areas.”

Because employee input is so highly valued within the Marriott properties, these meetings always end with a simple but profound question that managers ask their employees, “What tools do you need to get your work done or to do your job more effectively?” Ensuring that all employees feel their opinions are valued and taken seriously is critical to the company’s success. In his blog, Marriott says the phrase that is key to great leadership is, “What do you think?” He sees it as an opportunity to allow others to express their opinions, show interest in those opinions, and demonstrate that you are willing to pursue their ideas if they have merit. Marriott learned the phrase from President Eisenhower, and it became a powerful tool for his business. He writes, “I think that’s how Eisenhower got along with all those people he had to deal with during the Second World War as a general. He had to deal with Patton, Stalin, and Roosevelt, and with Marshall, Churchill, De Gaulle, and crazy Montgomery. They were a real bunch of characters. Ike got through it all and led us to victory. Because I’m sure a lot of times he asked that question “What do you think?” He didn’t necessarily do what they told him to do, but they knew he was interested in what they had to say.”

Embrace diverse perspectives

Leaders have a powerful opportunity to leverage their greatest asset: people. By making the most of diverse talent that has a rich set of expertise, experience, and cultural backgrounds, leaders are better placed to serve a global customer base. Beyond creating a climate of inclusion, these efforts help leaders build a resilient and resourceful organization that is open to new perspectives. The greater-than-the-sum-of-our-parts concept applies if all the talent and energy of the employees in the company is engaged to the profit of the enterprise and to the creation of a healthy and dynamic corporate culture.

Ask for feedback and mean it

Great leaders listen and evaluate before making decisions. By asking what others are thinking, and in which direction they think an organization should go, leaders invite their teams to think about the business as their own. This sense of ownership and accountability is strengthened when their opinions count. Open communication that encourages accountability across the organization for constant improvement, with every team member feeling responsibility for delivering results, creates a feedback loop that encourages ideas and suggestions and is both powerful and effective. This sense of personal responsibility also empowers employees to drive solutions and deliver value for customers in innovative ways.

Leaders who communicate effectively and create connected feedback networks can harness the power of these communities to feel the pulse of their business.Gathering actionable feedback from employees and following up on this feedback—either in changing aspects of the process or system under review or articulating the reasons for not changing it—gives people a sense of transparency, and creates a leadership team that shows both empathy and humility.

Excerpts of this article come from Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World

The Power of Awe: A sense of wonder makes us happier, more humble, and kinder

LIquote awe

Peak experiences are described by psychologist Abraham Maslow as “Especially joyous and exciting moments in life, involving sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and possibly also involving an awareness of transcendental unity or knowledge of higher truth.” If gazing up at a grove of tall trees surrounded by a nimbus of soft green light makes goosebumps ripple down your neck, you are experiencing awe.

Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world. In 1757, Irish philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful that we feel awe not only during religious ritual or in communion with God, but also in everyday experiences—being moved by music, hearing thunder, watching a brilliant sunset, or being surrounded by towering trees. Awe is all around us.

Research suggests that we need meaning in life and work to function. The experience of awe has the potential to turn our lives in a new direction, giving us a new perspective on the world and our place in it. As Neil deGrasse Tyson put it: “I look up at the night sky and I know that we are part of this universe. We are in this universe. But perhaps more importantly than both of these facts is that the universe is in us.”

Studies show that being in awe of something greater than oneself promotes prosocial behavior and gives us a sense of purpose. In 2015, a study by the University of California revealed that wonder has the power to make us more positive, more helpful, and friendlier. Subjects reported feeling less self-important, more humble, and more willing to help others, give to charity, or lessen their impact on the planet. They also reported feeling happier. Ongoing research into the power of awe is, if you’ll pardon the expression, eye-opening.

Awe stops the clock. The experience of vastness slows our perception of time. Research by psychologists at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota shows that experiencing awe increases well-being, giving us the sense that we have more time available.25 When experiencing awe, we are completely present, and time seems to stand still. We’re off autopilot and 100 percent engaged with the experience. We’re unlikely to be looking at our phones if we’re taking in the majesty of the Grand Canyon for the first time.

Awe binds us to the collective. When we feel awe, we feel connected. Near Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology stands a grove of eucalyptus trees, the tallest in North America. A team of researchers had one set of participants look up into the trees for one minute, long enough for them to report feeling awe. A second set of participants were asked to look up at the façade of an impressive science building. Both groups then encountered a researcher pretending to stumble and drop a handful of pens on the ground. The participants who had been gazing up at the awe-inspiring trees picked up more pens than those who had not experienced awe. Awe binds us as individuals into a social identity and makes us kinder.

Awe tames stress. The negative emotions that drive our fight-flight-freeze response cause inflammation throughout the body as they increase cortisol and adrenaline production. Studies have shown that individuals who recall more experiences of awe in a month-long period have lower levels of cytokines (the proteins that cause all that inflammation) than those who did not harness awe. It turns out that beholding the night sky while camping near a river can be a powerful immune booster.

Harnessing the power of wonder

Think of a time that you’ve experienced awe. How did that feel? It could be a spectacular hike, a vacation in a beautiful place, an inspiring story, or an incredible piece of music. There are, of course, experiences that are truly extraordinary (standing on the summit of Mount Everest or seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time) but there are also everyday experiences that are equally amazing and awe-inspiring.

I was watering my garden one summer when wonder dropped in for a visit. The watering process, done by hand, usually takes about two hours. I like to water early in the morning, enjoying a moment of quiet before the world wakes up. As I held the hose up to direct the stream of water, a tiny gleaming jewel caught my eye. Directly above the stream of water, almost touching my hand, a beautiful hummingbird hovered effortlessly, dipping its feet in the water in an astonishingly similar movement to humans paddling in a pool. Standing transfixed, I held my breath, not wanting to startle this little visitor. Every perfect feather etched in exquisite detail, it cocked its head and looked me squarely in the eye. We regarded each other for what felt like an eternity but must have been only moments. And then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the hummingbird was gone.

In a world that seems to move ever more quickly, this encounter left me with a sense of wonder. There is so much that is beautiful, and so much that we don’t notice as we go about our hectic lives. So busy are we with email, texts, social media, and the double-edged sword of technology that keeps us constantly connected, we risk becoming disconnected from the spectacular world we live in.

Small moments have a big impact

Recognition of those little, often mundane events in our lives gives us an opportunity to press the pause button, just for a moment, and experience the incredible beauty all around us. Life is not measured by how many breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away. Awe is in the smile of a loved one, the kindness of people, the laughter shared with a colleague, the feel of a gentle breeze on your skin, the rise of the moon on a clear and starry night, or music that makes your heart soar.

If we can harness wonder, we can start to see the world around us through a lens of positivity that builds optimism and reduces fear. Moments of wonder are all around us, every day. We only have to look up to see them.

Article excerpted from Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World

The Road to Resilience: 4 Ways to Bounce Back From Setbacks

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We all know fear, disappointment, and heartache. And we all experience joy, optimism, and happiness. As stress becomes increasingly prevalent in our lives, we look for ways to shore up our ability to cope. While we can’t necessarily change our environment, we have the power to shift our response to that environment by building resilience. Resilience isn’t a single skill; it’s a variety of skills and coping mechanisms to help us build a more optimistic outlook as a buffer when times get tough. There are four questions we can ask ourselves to start building our resilience muscle.

Am I operating from the inside out?

Gratitude can change your life for the better. A 2012 University of Kentucky study showed that intentionally noticing the good things in life and being grateful for them builds neural pathways to optimism, enhances empathy, and reduces aggression. Multiple studies have revealed a strong link between gratitude and well-being. An attitude of gratitude improves psychological health, increasing happiness and reducing depression. By focusing on the good things in life, we can reduce toxic emotions like envy, resentment, frustration, and regret.

Focusing on the positive each day shifts our perspective. Writing down the things we are grateful for helps us keep them in mind. Reflecting on those moments of gratitude builds neural pathways to optimism, regardless of whether we naturally see the glass as half full or half empty.

Operating from the inside out is about focusing on others rather than ourselves. Random acts of kindness can dramatically improve our happiness. Stanford students who were asked to perform five random acts of kindness over a week reported much higher happiness levels than those of a control group. The acts of kindness were appreciated by the recipients, and those who were giving felt good about themselves. In his book, Flourish, Martin Seligman writes, “Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

Am I willing to embrace failure?

To be human is to know failure. It’s an inevitable part of life. One of the frailties of the human psyche is our fear of failure. Yet without overcoming fear, we can’t innovate, create, or push forward as we are paralyzed by it. A mindset that is open to mistakes—and allows space to reflect on those mistakes and learn from them—creates a mental value system around learning. Opening our minds up to the possibilities of change exposes us to a world full of new skills, new opportunities, and new achievements. It takes courage to persevere in spite of setbacks. As Mark Twain put it, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

Not succeeding is not the same as failing. We all experience successes and failures. But the only real failure is when we are incapable of recovering from setbacks. Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” When you stumble, ask yourself whether you are focused on your mistake, or embracing the opportunity to learn from it.

Am I comfortable with my committee?

We all have experiences that color how we approach every aspect of our lives. Each of us brings our own filter into every interaction. It is this filter that creates stories, myths, and legends to resolve confusion and provide direction for each of us as we search for meaning. Many times, these stories come from authority figures – often family members, teachers, or others whose opinion means a great deal to us. And often, the stories are not kind.

There is a saying that a committee is a life form with several mouths, but no brain. Each of us has an inner know-it-all in our heads telling us we’re not good enough. We carry these voices with us throughout our lives, and they can hold us back when we need to move forward. Overcoming them means facing them head on and challenging the validity of the stories they are telling. Making peace with the inner critic means looking at our stories without judgement. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to help test the statements that your committee is making. Calling on past successes also serves as hard data that can help us challenge the negative assumption, move forward, and prove the committee wrong.

Am I choosing wonder over worry?

Research by psychologists at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota shows that experiencing awe increases well-being, giving us the sense that we have more time available. When experiencing awe, we are completely present, and time seems to stand still. We’re off autopilot and 100 percent engaged with the experience. We’re unlikely to be looking at our phones if we’re taking in the majesty of the Grand Canyon for the first time.

The negative emotions that drive our fight-flight-freeze response cause inflammation throughout the body as they increase cortisol and adrenaline production. Studies have shown that individuals who recall more experiences of awe in a month-long period have lower levels of cytokines (the proteins that cause all that inflammation) than those who did not harness awe. Awe is in the smile of a loved one, the kindness of people, the laughter shared with a colleague, the feel of a gentle breeze on your skin, the rise of the moon on a clear and starry night, or music that makes your heart soar. If we can harness wonder, we can start to see the world around us through a lens of positivity that builds optimism and reduces fear. Moments of wonder are all around us, every day. We only have to look up to see them.

Putting it all together

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” It’s easy to be optimistic, upbeat, and positive when things are going well. When we’re having a tough day, however, resilience can be more challenging. Consciously shifting our perspective to create optimistic neural pathways takes repetition, practice, and persistence.

By shifting our focus to the positive, we can change our perspective to take a longer view of any situation. In spite of the myriad demands of work and life, building resilience over time helps us to pick ourselves up and carry on in the face of adversity. Neurons that fire together wire together—the more we practice resilience and nurture our recovery from stress, the more natural it becomes to have an optimistic, forward-thinking outlook, and the more capable we are of overcoming stress and moving forward in spite of it.

Excerpts of this article are from Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World