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6 ways to lead through upset and adversity

Every so often we have to cope with a situation that we don’t like.  Sometimes, this can be an external event over which we have no control.

The coronavirus pandemic is the ultimate example – it has drawn a deep emotional response from all of us. It has put leaders in an impossible predicament.

Being told ‘what to do’ and ‘how to live’, even for essential public health reasons can affect your sense of identity and values. Both are deeply coded in the part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).  An attack on our values is interpreted by the brain in the same way as a physical attack.  It triggers the amygdala and our freeze-fight-flight response.

Emotions (especially negative ones) are so powerful because they are survival imperatives that indicate the level of threat in the environment. They are deeply encoded in the most primitive limbic systems of the brain.  By contrast, our conscious, rational brain functions evolved much later.  These are easily shutdown by cortisol and adrenaline release, in the face of a perceived physical or social threat.

This doesn’t make a rational response very easy, at the time you need it most.

Being a strong leader when you just don’t feel like it

It is hard to remain motivated and focused in a time of such uncertainty. It is easy to get bogged down in your emotions and the uncontrollable elements of the situation.

As a leader, you cannot afford to feel pressured, emotional and irrational. Instead you need to remain confident and act with purpose and poise. But, how do you do this with all of the difficult events, sad news and level of uncertainty you are experiencing?

There are ways that you can take control and these are important for you, as well as for sharing with your people. Coach them through this difficult time.

These are the six activities I recommend:


1. Labelling the emotion

Ask yourself how you are feeling – describe it exactly. This is effective because it engages the prefrontal cortex. This dampens down the response of the amygdala – its alarm signal has been heard. The finer the emotional distinction, the more cognition is required and the better the result.


2. Bodily awareness

I use a mindfulness technique of focusing on my visceral sensations  –focus on your breathing, your heart beat, your stomach gurgling, perhaps! Visceral sensations are processed by the insula as an indication of one’s physiological state.  For example, a raised heart-rate and blood-pressure, along with an erect posture might be interpreted by the brain as anger.  Breathing into bodily sensations changes the information sent to the insula and, thus, changes our emotional state.  Deep diaphragmatic breathing triggers the vagus nerve that is connected to parasympathetic nervous system.  This instantly calms us down.


3. Focus on gratitude and compassion

“I could have been born in a war-zone. I could have been born in a time without medical care.  I could be starving or suffering.”  By exercising other-praising emotions, such as gratitude and compassion, it engages goal-directed behaviours that divert us from the default mode network where upset and rumination often flourish.


4. Have a specific goal or project

This moves our brain from operating in the default mode network (where we ruminate and focus on problems). Having a project, goal or a particular focus will force our brain into the central executive network, where our reward circuitry is far more likely to be triggered than our threat.


5. ‘You can’t always get what you want!’ (apologies to the Rolling Stones!) 

Assuming everything should always go your way is opening yourself up to a life of negative prediction errors and of disappointment. Remain committed but not attached. Focus on what you can do and positive changes you can make.


6. Removing the stimulus

By minimising exposure to the news, your salience network is no longer activated by references to Covid-19. It is important as a business leader to stay in touch with developments that affect your people and your organisation, but don’t let yourself get bogged down in constant news reports and social media updates. Pick sources that you can rely on.

Remain confident and act with purpose and poise

Happiness is the key to success

When your mindset is positive and you feel motivated then productivity will directly be affected. This applies to you and your team.

Having a toolkit of methods is important because at different times, different ones will appeal. Practising them, even when feeling good is key. And remember to talk to your people about how they are coping and help them to bounce back when they are feeling low or out of control.

I want to ensure all leaders unleash their potential at this difficult time. Do you need support?  Don’t be hesitate. Get in touch, tell me your pain points and learn more about my Executive Mindset Coaching – using a neuroscience-based approach.

Get in touch with Tom
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