BY Nick Jankel

Author, Leadership Futurist, Philosopher, Transformation Catalyst

With most of us doing at least two people’s jobs and wearing multiple hats – and with the perfect storm of economic meltdown, climate change, and technological disruption on our doorstep – we all have to become super-resilient or, as some say, “anti-fragile” if we are going to be able to rise to the challenges ahead. We are literally of zero use to the world if we allow ourselves to burn out (as I discovered myself the hard way).

Whether it’s…

The school run.
Interminable Brexit.
Ceaseless work demands.
Tiring Trump.
Climate crisis.
Incessant meetings.
Hundreds of emails.
Dinner.

REPEAT.

All of these mean that the need for resilience has never been greater. So what is a leader to do?

The good news is that:

The very latest neuroscience has shown that resilience is “not a passive process” and is not hard-wired at birth. People are not born resilient but become resilient over time. In other words, we can all learn how to develop the skills and mindsets of resilience actively and consciously.

As a keynote speaker traveling all over the world, needing to deliver pitch perfect performances and inspiring workshops each and every time – sometimes delivering in 3 continents in 4 days – whilst leading a growing team and business and being a conscious father, if I don’t invest in my resilience I fail at everything.

Blending the latest science with timeless wisdom and practical experience from the frontlines of peak performance, here are seven of the most important ways you can build your resilience for the road ahead.

1. The Essential For Resilience: Recovery

An uncomfortable fact about modern life is that it is too fast for our biologies to keep up with. We evolved to function in far slower environments but now we must deal with anthropocene angst with neolithic neurons. Which means that the pace and intensity of most of our lifestyles is actually traumatizing to our systems (trauma being experiences that we don’t have the resources to process fully in real-time so they stick with us in some way, reducing our capacity to thrive). 

The cut-and-thrust of organizational life is so intense that our hearts and minds need space and time to process everything that we experience in a given day and week. So we need to ensure that we invest in our recovery so that we have the resources we need inside to cope with the constant pressures on our performance as well as the many social pains we encounter. We need to actively choose to decompress regularly.

All great athletes discover that their performance is as much dependent on their recovery time as their training time. For a leader, this means taking recovery time as seriously as project goals and social priorities. You might be able to exist on Diet Cokes and adrenaline for months, even years, but the debt you run up will have to be paid back at some point. And burnout is not something you can recover from a few days. I can tell you that first hand.

A way to guard against chronic low-level burnout is to really honor the need for recovery time in you and your team(s). Evidence shows that a lack of recovery times leads to increased health problems like fatigue and sleep issues; and that overworking lowers our productivity. So find out what activities really allow you to mentally and emotionally recover from bursts of committed hard work and never feel guilty about enjoying them.

Whether it’s sofa time with Netflix, Friday afternoon golf, or walking in the woods, these activities are as important to your long-term productivity and innovativeness as the hours you put in in the office. This means protecting your downtime like it is the most precious resource you have. It is. So schedule it in whilst also leaving plenty of space for serendipity and genuine relaxation. Watch any addictions to your activities; and if at least one doesn’t involve physical exercise and another nature (or both together), try some that do. The benefits of exercise to wellness are well proven.

As well as ensuring you get enough recovery time to stay fit and flexible and truly chill out, over the course of each week I highly recommend ring-fencing periods for the following:

Processing Time

Working out why that person triggers you; why you’re noticing more anxiety or stress; why you felt uncomfortable in that meeting etc etc etc. Include in this co-processing time with your team (yes, including the one at home). Neuroscience has shown that we have social brains designed to co-attend to problems and co-create solutions to them. This helps us regulate (See below).

Creative Time (or “Noodling” Time)

Allowing your creative brain networks to engage in problem-solving without needing to achieve a goal or “right” answer. They activate when we are relaxed, not when we are focused on “getting stuff done”. This means designing into your life moments of creative thinking that allow for divergent thinking. Again, make sure you design this in for your team to co-create solutions too. Nature walks and showers have been proven to be perfect for this.

Serendipity Time (or “Pottering” Time)

Time not designated to any activity but not just watching TV either. This allows your entire system to “idle” in a steady state that opens up truly divergent thought as well as space and time for creative and social adventures that are simply not possible if all our time is apportioned and scheduled. This might mean having one weekend in four that you make zero plans for and allow whatever is seeking to emerge to do so.

2. The Resilience Mindset: Ownership Mindset

Recent research has shown that amongst West Point soldiers, “psychological hardiness” – which includes being able to take multiple perspectives and to explore multiple possible responses (as well as seeing all experiences as interesting and meaningful)- is a better predictor of ability in the field than traditional predictors of performance like intelligence. The ability to feel powerful in difficult situations (and so to explore problems curiously and creatively) and to feel at peace and even positive no matter what happens, are both key to becoming anti-fragile.

We may not be able to control events but we can exert some agency in how we react to them: ie whether we react unconsciously or respond consciously and creatively.

When we feel controlled by the world, it can easily turn into stress and worse. New research has shown that vulnerability to stress is a “failure of plasticity”; an inability to creatively adapt to new circumstances. This leaves people stuck in a “disordered psychological state” which generates more stress and a sense of helplessness. By taking what we call an “ownership mindset”, we can find something we can control within the crazy. We take ownership of our emotional and cognitive relationship to the stressor (do we feel upset, triggered, or frustrated or calm, curious, optimistic); as well as ownership of how we respond to it with actions.

3. The Resilience Skill: Emotional Regulation & Optimistic Equanimity

As reported in the journal Nature, one of the brain’s key roles is to scan for danger and threats. When one is spotted, our emotions work very quickly – at least 0.5 seconds before we are aware of any reaction – to get us fighting and fleeing. But most of the threats we now face in everyday life our social challenges not survival threats. This means that our emotions are likely to be all of the place – dysregulated in the lingo – even when we have no evolutionary need to be so roiled. And when we are emotionally charged, we are likely to play out old and out-dated habits and patterns that make the situation worse.

Such emotional instability leads to a lot of “negative” emotions swirling around us that then wear us down. The resulting chronic stress alters the brain, reduces the creation of new neurons, suppresses new neuronal connections, changes DNA and can lead towards more severe mental health problems. We become less creative and adaptable in the moments when being flexible would be most adaptive. We lose our head just when we need them most. Without working on how to regulate your emotions effectively, you won’t be able to kick in your higher brain functions that research shows are vital. We need this wisdom to reframe issues and find opportunities  within them.vThen “either everything seems threatening (anxiety) or else nothing does (depression or burnout).”

So it is crucial to get your mind in shape so it can deal with the many curve balls every leader must deal with. Key is to work to be as “unpeturbable” as possible by intense events. Think a calm pond that maintains quietude even as rocks are thrown in it. Buddhists call this “equanimity”. But conventional notions of equanimity can leave us passionless, uninspired and uninspiring. So I advocate what I call “optimistic equanimity”: knowing deep within that every situation, no matter how grim it appears, is workable. More than this, it means knowing that each situation can be harnessed to our advantage for our development into an exemplary Transformational Leader (in this way it has similarities with the “growth mindset” or Carol Dweck. Plus optimism has recently been proven to protect against disease and even extend your life. This does not mean controlling our emotions and repressing them; but mastering our emotions and using practices like meditation to dial down the stress response and return to a state of curious calm by choice.

4. The Activity for Resilience: Reconnection Practices

Modern life can easily alienate us from nature, each other, and ourselves. This can drive us into a sense of endless stress as we struggle to feel safe, connected, and trusted. So when you feel bewildered, confused, or overwhelmed, a reconnection practice is what brings you back to yourself. It helps you drop into your body and drop your worries. It returns you to your true nature as part of nature: at-one with life so nothing can perturb your connection. Such practices also activate the relaxation response, discovered and promoted by Harvard Medical School, which is the equal and opposite response to the fight and flight of stress.

There are dozens of evidence-based reconnection activities to choose from, from mindfulness meditation to tai chi or yoga; from expressive art to ecstatic dance. They key is to find one that gets you out of your mind and into you body; and that recharges your joie de vivre. Then… practice. They are called practices for a reason. And even when you feel like you can’t be bothered… try it for 5 minutes and see if the energy flows back. And after a while, follow your curiosity and find a new one. I wholeheartedly recommend a silent, mindful walk around a local park or green patch for a few minutes each day; and

5. The Orientation for Resilience: Trusted Relationships

We are eminently social animals. Our brains develop within relationships and relationships guide everything we feel, think, and do. If we are uneasy in them, this will permeate every area of our leadership style. As research from Google and the Harvard Business Review has made clear, if teams don’t feel emotionally safe and trusted, high-performance is practically impossible and certainly not sustainable. Research shows that people need relationships that work to be at their resilient best: at the office and at home. So take your team out regularly to relax and connect together. Invite one to have lunch with you once or twice a week without any agenda. Take a coffee to a co-worker and just see how they are doing.

In rodent studies, rats exposed to moderate stress (or eustress) display more positive sociality like “huddling, resource sharing and reduced aggression”. But if the immobilized rats are exposed to high-level-stress, they lose all pro-social behaviours. So help your team engage with stress together before they disconnect, become alienated from each other, and lose empathy. Otherwise conflict and not creativity will be the outcome. Trust is the lubricant of all innovation and the prerequisite for bold transformations. So if you have ambitious goals for your team or enterprise, you won’t be able to realize them without nurturing great relationships!

6. The Anchor for Resilience: Life & Leadership Purpose

During times of rapid change and crisis (and let’s face it, that means pretty much all the time), the only anchor you can rely is your purpose: why you get up every morning and lead others in the first place. Research has proven that “purpose in life predicts better emotional recovery from negative stimuli” and difficult events. It can even inoculate us for future intense stressors making us truly anti-fragile. Purpose will hold you in a consistent and empowering frame of meaning no matter how crazy the world is around you: allowing you to make sense of even the weirdest events and scariest news. Therefore purpose boosts the ownership mindset and optimistic equanimity mentioned above.

Your purpose will remain thematically consistent your whole life so you can rely on it to guide you through tough decisions and to help navigate uncertain times – when everything else feels like it is careening about you. It will unfold and become richer but it won’t flit around or flip flop (like so many politicians and bosses). To find your purpose is a gift only you can give yourself: but it will keep on giving for the rest of your life.

7. The Foundation Of Resilience: Sleep Hygiene

Decent sleep resets our system and clears away stress and stress chemicals. Without it, we simply cannot approach being resilient. Yet over half of Americans have sleep issues. Sleep problems promote stress and mental ill-health, studies with soldiers show that decent sleep may well be the foundation of all resilience. Without sustained refreshing sleep, some kind of break down is always within sight. Without paying attention to sleep, you cannot expect to have true resilience. It is the first step for wellbeing, as my years suffering from fibromyalgia (chronic pain syndrome) has taught me. Proper rest is the starting point for genuine recovery.

Having “sleep hygiene” means we focus on creating the right conditions for good sleep each night. It means going to bed at roughly the same time every night, with a similar bedtime routine, and within a safe space. It means avoiding caffeine, screens, booze, and other stimulants as much as possible before bed. It means not having our cellphone or laptop in our bedroom seducing us to engage.

So experiment with the right pillows so you wake up without aches and pains. Ensure you like your sheets and that your mattress supports you well as your body grows older. If necessary, sleep in a separate bed to you partner (or a room if necessary). Yes, I really said that. At minimum, have a separate duvet if the movement of it wakes you up. Invest in whatever you need to sleep well even if it means missing out on luxuries. You will never regret it.

Discover the right amount of sleep you need and sacrifice chit chat and cocktails to ensure you get it.

If you’re here for the long term, committed to using your life as a leader to generate transformational change, then you cannot afford not to take your resilience seriously – and work on it as you do other key areas of life and leadership success. Building resilience is self-care as its meant to be: as a radical act of service and servant leadership.

Baring in mind things are likely to get tougher not easier, can you afford not to find yours?