Leading Through Chaotic Times
Raise your hand if one of your common refrains last November and December was some variation of “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over” or “2021 can’t come fast enough.” I certainly heard myself expressing a wish to start anew or fast forward!
The New Year came and went, and with it the disappointing realization that January 2021 was really not going to look much different than December 2020. Indeed, as we rolled into January, our country experienced an attempt to subvert our democratic electoral process, political discord seemed as divisive as ever, and our COVID crisis accelerated.
Right now, many of our clients are facing difficult challenges that don’t seem to be abating any time soon. For some, sales and profits are down; for others, major initiatives have to be put on hold; and almost everyone is trying to figure out how to continue to remain resilient as they work at home.
At Nebo, client requests have evolved from “triage” to “sustained management;” meaning that leaders are starting to recognize our virtual routines will be with us for a while. They recognize that we can’t just wish things will be better, or that we can just wait this out. Many are starting to realize that this is life, so let’s figure out how to be happy and successful, even when times are tough.
Last fall, I started re-reading When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist teacher. I had been struggling with how to manage through the pandemic and, perhaps like some of you, was starting to feel helpless and perhaps a bit depressed. Turning to Pema Chodron’s teachings was the beginning of a turn-around for me. In it, she applies Buddhist principles which help us realize that even in the midst of the most challenging times we can find joy.
This book was first published in 1997 and here’s what she wrote in her chapter titled, Three Methods for Working with Chaos: “Times are difficult globally; awakening is no longer a luxury or ideal…It’s becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times.”
I am not a practicing Buddhist, yet I find true wisdom in the approach that Chodron describes. At the end of the day, we need to acknowledge that the only state that is permanent is, in fact, impermanence. Things are always changing. And, here’s the kicker, the more we fight this reality, the more suffering and harm we cause to ourselves and others.
So, when our lives, businesses, and communities are in disarray, how do we find peace? Only by acknowledging and embracing chaos and our inability to control it, are we able to be successful. By facing the chaos, we are often facing our fears. Pema Chodron encourages us to truly get in touch with our fear. Here is what she recommends:
- First, acknowledge, really notice what you are saying to yourself, what the storyline is, and realize how this self-talk could be heightening the fear.
- Next, rather than ruminating on these thoughts and self-talk, let them go. The author advises that trying to think your way out of fear will cause more suffering—like pouring fuel on the fire. In addition, we shouldn’t judge ourselves. Just acknowledge these thoughts and release them.
- After we let them go, she encourages us to check our bodies and feel where the fear is manifesting in your body—is it in your jaw? Maybe your shoulders? In your stomach?
- Finally, breathe. Breathe deeply into the places where you feel the fear physically. And then, breathe it out. As Nebo facilitator Izzy Martens wrote in her blog, a single breath can transform us and those around us.
By acknowledging and accepting chaos, and perhaps fear, instead of fighting or trying to control it, we free ourselves to be creative.
When you can settle in, new insights arise about how you can handle things or do things differently. As leaders, this change in perspective will benefit your colleagues and teams. When leaders are able to remain calm, others feel it, and it frees them up as well.
So yes, the outside world might be falling apart, but we don’t have to. By turning inward, noticing and acknowledging our fears and then practicing letting them go, we can uncover new kinds of creativity, resolve and calm. While this approach may seem counterintuitive, try it. While humbling, it helps us to stay connected with our place of greatest influence: ourselves.