Burning bright, not burning out: Leadership in tough times and the art of managing Stress, Well-being and Centeredness

Haunted, stressed look

How do I stay centred with all this to do?

Take Away Line

As high stress levels seem to be endemic in professional life, attention turns to understanding how to cope and, better still, to lead oneself and ones team through the stress.  The process of moving from being subject to stress to a position of having the personal wellbeing and skills to support others manage their stress and stay well is one that leaders increasingly need to acquire.  Some organisations seem to understand that this is an area that needs investment and others do not. The case of one organisation that does wish to support its leaders lead in stressful times and in highly demanding environments, an international development NGO, is instructive.  Here’s what we did recently in Uganda.

When stress is endemic

It’s hardly a secret that the staff of international development organisations burn out.  A combination of their high levels of motivation, the seemingly impossibly large scale of the work that they feel needs to be done, the often low levels of resource and sometimes skill within their employing organisations to provide support, personal development and emotional ‘containing’ in tough times, can leave staff giving too much and having to quit or at best living with high levels of stress.

Being resilient while maintaining energy, objectivity and emotional presence over the long haul is a quality in their staff that NGOs seem sometimes to struggle to foster.  But INGOs are not alone in this.  The lessons they can teach those of us in other organisations can however be helpful.

Take ‘Hororé’, for example, who is posted 1000s of kilometres from his young family to a conflict zone that is far too often in the news, where the sense of isolation and loneliness is high.  [‘You can’t easily make friends with locals in this area because the conflict affects everything and people are under too much pressure.  One day you’re negotiating with the government; the next the rebels.  Just to get things done.  You might make friends with someone, but you don’t know their connections or their pressures. You could easily find they come to your house one day with a gun, demanding more than a friendship.  So you have to keep to yourself and your immediate work colleagues.]

Hororé can take leave every six months to visit his family.  Last time, he saw his five-month old son for the first time.  He’s worried for his family; they are worried for him.  ‘Thank God for Skype!’  But the stress is beginning to show in a number of ways including his physical health.

Organisations need to be proactive in facilitating wellbeing

You may say this is an extreme example to make the obvious point that leadership is tough.  For some, there is a real question as to the extent work organisations can and should enter the arena of personal welfare.  Yet, Hororé is not alone in his organisation and his organisation is by no means unique.  If his relationship with work collapses, it’s not only at a high (and possibly tragic) cost to him; it’s also a tragedy for the organisation and to the delivery of its mission.  And frankly, it’s just not what a great employer is like anymore.  A good employer wants the best for its people: it’s the right thing to do and it’s easier to do things with people who are motivated, fit and well than otherwise.  Better still, such an organisation is more self-sustaining.

A case in point

The organisation colleagues and I worked with is realising it needs to do a little more in this area.  We were privileged to offer a weeklong intensive programme of inputs, exercises, reflection and coaching for leaders from the African region, alongside senior staff from the HQ of this very large international development agency (INGO).

This agency is highly successful.  It had seen growth and enjoyed the confidence of major governmental and corporate donors.  It has an extensive network of programmes and offices in the global South.  The level of dedication amongst its staff in the field and management positions is remarkable and its operations include some of the world’s tricky hotspots such as Eastern Congo and Somalia.  Work of this nature is not for the faint of heart!

But things are changing and need to continue to change.  Hit by the world economic crisis, it has had to reduce its staff numbers.  Its programme direction is moving towards greater levels of working in partnership with others, especially local NGOs.  Internally, it is changing its structures and working processes.

So, it needs leaders who can deliver radical change and cope well with the ‘day job’.  And it can’t deliver ‘adaptive change[1]’ in complex circumstances without commitment, skill and resilience.  Old forms of control and a highly participative approach to consulting on most decisions just don’t provide the responsiveness and creativity it needs now.  For some senior staff, the question is often do we want to embrace this new and highly uncertain environment and, if we do, do we have the skills and the energy to make it happen.  The rules have changed.  So what are the new rules?

Centred Leadership

Let’s hone in now on the group of leaders with whom colleagues and I have recently been working.  We had gathered in Uganda, a country that has just celebrated its first half-century of independence.  Uganda is a country that has seen much change.  I was last there as it ‘celebrated’ 20 years of independence by throwing out dictator Idi Amin and was entering a period of political turbulence before finally achieving a settlement that has delivered peace and a modest degree of prosperity.  The calm setting of Lake Victoria was a good place to reflect on change. And wellbeing.

The excellent article by Barsh, Mogelof and Webb[2] on ‘How centred leaders achieve extraordinary results’, has as its starting point the observation that the business environment has become more demanding with many large organisations having to ‘fundamentally rethink their business model’.  What’s needed for such times, they argue, is ‘high levels of professional performance and life satisfaction’, which they characterise as ‘centred leadership’.  This is just what our INGO friends have in their sights too.

Centred leadership has five attributes as the article describes, but notes that even mastery of one of these are twice as likely to feel they can lead through change and if they have mastered all of them they are four times as likely to feel equipped in this way.  The five attributes are:

  1. Finding meaning at work
  2. Positive framing – converting emotions such as fear or stress into opportunity
  3. Connecting – leveraging connections or community
  4. Engaging with the issues – being proactive in the face of risk
  5. Managing energy – sustaining energy that is the live force of change

As we noted earlier, the leaders in our group generally experienced high level of meaning in their work.  Indeed, managing their levels of attachment to their cause was more likely the challenge than finding meaning per se.  Feeling overwhelmed by the scale of change, the perceived weakness of their back office systems and the high volume of work in the ‘day job’ were the most common causes they attributed to their feels of frustration, stress and at times, confusion.

Intervening for Wellness

The value of just opening up a space to reflect on such questions cannot be overestimated.  Our ‘high-touch’ intervention gave plenty of airtime to enabling each person to frame their experience, in large and small groups, in their ‘home’ team or in groups of people unfamiliar to them.  One-on-one coaching sessions enabled both framing and challenge.  Our inputs addressed questions of personal power, understanding adaptive change and leading change.  And we enabled discussion of wellbeing, renewal and resilience to allow sufficient ‘whole person’ attention to framing future development needs and goals.

Impact?  I’ll get back to you on that when the dust has settled.  But what was clear was that hearts were touched and the space to reflect calmly on where they were in the maelstrom of change helped many to locate or begin the search for the centre from which they may more clearly lead both themselves and their people in the year ahead.

This is not a special Case

The seeming exotic world of INGOs can give them the air of being a special case. Yet, in public services, civil society organisations, as well as struggling small businesses and large corporates, the climate of constant and radical of change abounds.  The struggle to stay centred in oneself throughout as a leader is a goal many seek and our friends in Uganda begin to show a way through.

Debating Points

  1. What is your organisation doing to help support its people in tough times?
  2. As a leader how do you show the way – and stay fresh yourself?

[1] Much has been written on adaptive change, but see, for example, an article in the Harvard Business Review: The Work of Leadership, December 2001 http://hbr.org/2001/12/the-work-of-leadership/ar/1

[2] How centred leaders achieve extraordinary results, McKinsey Quarterly, October 2010


About transformingtales

What you do is what you do, isn't it? Nothing special there. What I do is work mainly with civil society organisations, but also some public and corporate sector outfits, to help them change. For the better. For good. If you provide a list of the things you do, the services you offer, like strategic planning, leadership development, corporate governance, culture change and performance management, they are just words. And tricky sounding words too that put you off and imply more questions than they answer. So, this blog is about the stories, the joys and the woes of making tranformative change happen (on a good day) and when and why it doesn't (on a bad day). And it's dedicated to my daughter who asked the question a few years ago: 'What do you do again, Dad?'
Gallery | This entry was posted in Africa, Change management, Civil Society, Coaching, Consulting, Employee engagement, Innovation, International consulting, International Development, Leadership, Leadership development, Talent development, Well-being. Bookmark the permalink.

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