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Business writing,  Humanising business,  Leadership,  Organisational change,  Personal Reflections,  Uncategorised

Rethinking Energy

Of all of the themes in the book that I’ve had cause to think longest and hardest about this past year, it’s the theme of energy.

In the book, I explain that I chose then to talk about energy rather than resilience, because energy seemed to me, back in the heady days of 2018, by far the higher aspiration; it spoke of the opportunity to be generative and creative during periods of change, rather than seeking merely to get through and survive. Ha! Anyone up for revisiting ‘getting though and surviving’ as the highest of aspirations in the light of the year we’ve just had?

Everywhere I turn, I encounter leaders who are overwhelmed and exhausted. In the UK at least, this seems even more acute as things start to feel objectively a little better – I suspect because we’re out of adrenalin and crisis mode, some numbness is wearing off, and the reckoning of all that we’ve been through is beginning. I speak to leaders who feel that they are too thinly spread, and have been for a long time. They have violated so many of their own boundaries that they’re not sure where they end and other people begin, and they feel that they’re not doing anything well enough.

Our exhaustion is no surprise. At a neurological level, the nature and scale of what we’ve been through this past year has posed a challenge to our confidence, our certainty around how the world works, our autonomy and our relationships. The huge spike in adrenalin and cortisol that we all experienced yes, may have help us to get through, but over time these hormones inhibit our ability to think clearly, increase negativity, and deplete our self control and our ability to manage our mood.

And yet, and yet. Almost every leader I speak to also wants to do more. I meet leaders who are deeply committed to their organisations and their people. Who have a deep sense of duty and, more, have some sense of excitement around the future, and a desire to change, to harness some of what we’ve learned, and to begin to do things differently.

In the book, I begin the chapter on energy with this quote from David Whyte, one of my favourites:

“The antidote to exhaustion isn’t rest. It’s wholeheartedness.”

How do we find that wholeheartedness? How, as individuals and as leaders do we possibly both keep ourselves well, and focus on that hankering for more, that generative power and energy that change can bring?

As a starting point, we need to pay close attention to our energy levels. At the end of 2020, a friend of mine suggested that I should try an exercise she’d just done and draw myself a timeline of the year – a bit like the well-known life chapters exercise often used in coaching, but spanning only the past twelve months. She suggested initially that I try charting mood, but this looked like how an ECG might look had I run a mile flat out. 

So then I tried mapping confidence, but found that it bounced around all over the place – for all my fine talk, I remain very much at the whim of other peoples’ feedback, how much sleep I’ve had and what I ate for lunch when it comes to determining how confident I feel on any given day. 

It was when I tried mapping how my energy had ebbed and flowed over the course of the year that things got interesting. There was a huge surge immediately following the first lockdown in the UK in March last year – no doubt fuelled by a combination of adrenalin, fear, novelty and the particular esprit de corps that comes from working in a team to address a crisis. It then waned steadily throughout the summer, bolstered a bit by some time away, and a bit more by a (false!) sense of a return to normality back in September, and then plummeting through the autumn and into the winter as the public health situation deteriorated again and some work and personal stuff loomed large. 

The interesting learning for me, was how much longer the wavelength was when it came to changes in energy, compared to the more volatile and whimsical changes in mood and confidence – and, therefore, how much more of a chance I had had to address issues and change course if only I had been paying attention! 

This is important, and speaks to one of the quibbles I have with talking about ‘resilience’: it can lead us to think that as long as we feel ‘okay’, that’s good enough. Instead, we need to be taking a proactive and generative approach to our energy – actively looking for ways to bolster and maintain it. 

So, what might some of these ways be? Much of the detail will be personal to you – what you love, your health, your work family circumstances. But here are some thoughts based on what we know from research:

  • An optimistic but realistic outlook helps. Having hope, practising gratitude, but also being able to accept your current reality. There’s something in this for me about surrender – it makes me think of aikido, where you use the space, absorb all the energy that’s coming at you and find ways to redirect it. It’s about wholeheartedness in engaging with the world as it is, rather than resisting or denying. What does that look like for you? How might it shape how you communicate and show up as a leader?
  • Getting really clear about what you can control and what you can’t, and then going all out to use all the agency you’ve got – which is likely more than you think – helps too. Take responsibility for your own resilience. Give your team the permission (be explicit) and space and tools they need to take responsibility for theirs. Own it! Be ruthless with unnecessary stressors and sources of anxiety – if there is pressure that you are adding like seasoning or garnish on top of the already enormous mountain on your plate, stop it! And as for the meta-stuff? i.e. feeling bad about feeling bad? Stop that too! Have some mercy on yourself.
  • Tap in to creativity and purpose. What can you dig into? What can you galvanise your team around? How can you take a positive and pro-active approach to problem solveng? How can you engage your team in doing the same? 
  • Compassion – show it, practice it, receive it. 

Perhaps, then, there is no tension between resilience and generating energy. Perhaps they are better understood as one and the same thing; it is only by truly investing in our own energy and that of our team, in connecting, showing compassion, surrendering, accepting, taking agency, creating, and moving that we can truly stay resilient. 

You can read more practical tips for leaders in supporting resilience here.