Let me tell you about the morning I had today. One of our cats has diarrhea, and I cleaned up after her four times before 9:30. The other cat caught and killed a cardinal, despite the fancy collar that I had fitted around his neck just last week that is supposed to make it easier for birds to see him coming and escape. My 7 year old daughter woke up an hour early, tired and cranky, and took exception to practically everything I said and did in our short time together before school started. Needless to say, I did not get to the work I had planned to tackle before she woke up.
Do you ever have days like this as a leader? What’s your professional equivalent of cats with diarrhea, dead birds, and whiny children? And, when you have days like this, what sustains you? How do you keep going with at least some semblance of perspective and skill? What’s the touchstone that you can return to, that grounds you and gives you a base from which to start again?
I think these are critical questions for leaders to engage with, because how (or whether) you answer these questions for yourself will spill over into how you lead your team or organization through tough moments, whether those moments last a morning or a month or a year.
In my work with clients, I find there are two levels on which you can engage with these questions. Both of them are important. The first has to do with what sustains you on a daily basis. How do you nourish yourself so that you can continue to lead with energy and optimism, no matter the challenges?
On this level, I’ve worked with clients on things like eating nourishing food, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and building or tending to relationships that support them. It’s like making regular deposits into your bank account. You know that the challenges of each day will draw down your balance a little bit, so you have to make regular deposits in order to stay in the black.
The second level goes deeper. It has to do with what sustains you when everything you depend on to nourish you changes or is no longer available. Years ago, my yoga teacher experienced a growth at the base of her brain stem. She eventually had surgery and recovered, but during her illness she found that she could no longer do yoga without suffering dizziness and nausea. I vividly remember her saying, “All my life I’ve depended on yoga. When I was having a hard day or feeling bad, I could get on the mat and feel better. Now, I get on the mat and feel worse. What do I depend on now?”
All of us experience challenges and losses like this. Maybe we depend on physical exercise to nourish ourselves, and injury or disease makes that impossible for an extended period of time. Perhaps our relationships are what get us through, until divorce or death or just relocation takes away the safety net. Maybe, as a leader, you’ve sustained yourself with knowledge of the contribution that you’re making and then suddenly you lose your job, or simply retire.
What then? What sustains you when the familiar supports are gone?
I think two things matter at this level: your values and intentions, and the practices that help you bring those values and intentions alive in your life. In other words, what kind of person do you want to be? What values matter most to you, and how do you intend to act from those values in the midst of whatever challenges you’re facing? And perhaps most important, how do you intentionally practice living from those values on a daily basis, so that they’re accessible to you when you need sustaining?
A friend and colleague I admire and care about is currently undergoing treatment for cancer. She is an inspiring role model for me when it comes to this question of what sustains me. Despite the challenges of surgery and chemotherapy, not to mention coming to terms with the possibility of death, she is present and open, and has access to both gratitude and compassion as she moves through this experience. And that’s no accident – she has spent years practicing these things.
So, what will sustain you in similarly challenging moments? And, what are you practicing now that will be the foundation of who you are and how you show up when those moments come?
To close, I want to share a video I found when, on a whim, I typed “what sustains you?” into YouTube. (I love technology, sometimes.) This clip features an actor named Anthony Meindl addressing an acting workshop on that exact question.
What I find so striking is how applicable his message is way beyond the world of acting. Like an actor, you as a leader are “in a business of perseverance, and you have to keep moving forward, you can’t take things personally.” Meindl offers a perspective on values and intentions that can serve to sustain you through “bad patches”, and I think his perspective applies equally to actors and leaders, and to human beings generally. I hope you find some inspiration in his words.
What about you? What sustains you? How do you keep yourself grounded during tough moments in your day or your career? What practices or perspectives keep you going? I’d love to hear your comments!
“Hard Work Ahead” photo courtesy of Bigapplestock, Dreamstime Photos