In times of crisis, leaders step up to be more … combining endurance, resilience and gratitude, to keep going in the toughest times

April 30, 2020

These are difficult times. For everyone. These are times when organisations need leaders. These are the moments that the best leaders have been waiting for. This is the time for leaders to step:

Endurance

Endurance is as much about mind as muscle power.

In sports – the runner, the cyclist, the rower – there are many physiological elements at play, from core body temperature to oxygen intake, as well as other psychological factors, such as perceived effort and pain tolerance. Each of these factors are significant in the level of athletic performance humans are capable of, especially when testing the perceived limits of performance, such as setting new world records.

However nearly every athlete will attest to faster recovery if they jump into an ice bath after a competition. Yet studies show that this practice doesn’t actually decrease inflammation levels, the thing the baths are intended to reduce. However most physiologists will still say that if there’s a method that helps you recover, even if it’s purely psychological, it’s valuable to use it because sometimes belief is just as influential as science.

In “Endure” Alex Hutchinson starts by retelling the race to break 4 minutes for one mile. For years, men across the globe had raced to within a second or two of the barrier, but never quite breaking the iconic time. When Britain’s Roger Bannister finally ran 3.59.4 in 1954, Australian John Landy who had been trying to run the time for years, went on to improve  Banister’s time by another second, only weeks later.

A number of important factors can help people, including business leaders, to endure more:

  • We always have a little more to give. Watch how athletes pace themselves so that we can give that final push at the end of a long distance event. Somehow the Olympic champion, despite enduring a punishing race, can still rise to celebrate their victory
  • We can endure more than we think. Athletes have a higher-than-normal pain tolerance, which leads to better performance. They learn to cope with this by training at a “threshold” pace, learning to sustain it whilst in oxygen debt, despite the pain.
  • Fitness enables us to perform better. Athletic performance greatly relies on oxygen intake, which is enhanced through heightened fitness. Physical fitness equally matters to the business leader, who needs a resilient body for optimal performance.
  • Fatigue reduces our performance. Having a tired brain can affect how much you can endure physically. A tired brain is one that doesn’t have a break, isn’t refuelled, doesn’t have variety, doesn’t keep renewing itself, or get enough sleep.
  • Stress stops us performing. Of the many factors, stress can be the killer. However stress comes in two forms – stress put on us, for example timescales, and stress we put on ourselves. External stress can stimulate us, internal stress we can control.

Hutchinson’s research led him to South Africa to work with Tim Noakes, the controversial sports scientist who first proposed the “central governor theory,” which argues that the brain limits performance well before the body has reached its maximum output. He also explores the research of another pioneering scientist, Samuele Marcora, who has developed a series of brain-training exercises to push that governor.

He also recalls talking to Eliud Kipchoge before his Sub 2 hour marathon attempt, when the Kenyan said he hadn’t really changed anything in his training. What then, he asked, would make the difference? “My mind will be different” replied the runner.  People he says, have a curiously elastic limit to what they can achieve, driven mainly be their mental toughness.

Resilience

Resilience is our ability to bounce back from adversity. It’s what allows us to recover quickly from change or setbacks, or trauma or failure, whether at work or in life. It is the ability to maintain a sense if purpose, a positive attitude,  a belief in better, throughout times of challenge. Resilience sustains progress, whilst others might give up.

Angela Duckworth calls it grit. “Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals” she says. She compares it not to a marathon, but to a series of sprints combined with a boxing match. In business you are not just running but also getting hit along the way. As you seek to deliver on your strategy, to make new ideas happen, to transform the business, its not just about coping with the time and effort. It’s also about overcoming many challenges.

Grit keeps you moving forward through the sting of rejection, pain of failure, and struggle with adversity. “When things knock you down, you may want to stay down and give up, but grit won’t let you quit” says Duckworth.

Most entrepreneurs have tremendous resilience, because they’ve had to fight for the business through some of the most difficult times. The search for seed funding when every VC dismissed them with a laugh or smile, the long days in a bedroom or garage trying to make the first prototype or win the first contract, the growing pains of scale-up as they have to adapt to survive and thrive. Letting go of control as investors take over, making you wealthy but taking away your baby. Most entrepreneurs know about grit.

But then so do corporate leaders. If not from starting up, but from surviving the challenges of internal politics, of learning how to engage and influence people in a positive way, of progressing as a star individual whilst keeping colleagues and teams on side. Of balancing personal ambition with collective progress. Resilience demands that we:

  • Have ambition: Knowing what you truly want, and are prepared to work hard and persevere in order to achieve it. Vision isn’t just a milestone, it becomes a pursuit. Whilst not everybody will know  your ambition, you will, and it will keep you striving.
  • Have purpose: This is why you want to achieve more, it’s about what will be better when you achieve your ambition, not just for you, but your business, your family, your world. Purpose is how you contribute, what you fight for, why you get up in the morning.
  • Have passion: You need to love it, to be great at it. Otherwise it’s not worth the sacrifices, the long hours, and the pain. Aligning your purpose and ambition allows you to find love, for your work, your team, your business, and the world you seek to impact.
  • Have persistence: You will sometimes fail. Few things change without challenges. Failure doesn’t define you, it refines you. If you didn’t fail, you wouldn’t learn. There is always another way. Stay confident and stay strong.

A great example of resilience is Nelson Mandela. He was sent to prison as a young firebrand who believed in taking up violent resistance when the justice system failed him in apartheid South Africa. 27 years later, he walked out of Robben Island prison advocating peace and reconciliation. During his long confinement, Mandela mastered the art of self-leadership. He took great inspiration in the poem “Invictus,” written by William Ernest Henley, which ends with the lines “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”

Gratitude

You could say they are two of the most magical words: thank you.

People want to know that their work is appreciated. Showing gratitude to your people is the easiest, fastest, most inexpensive way to boost performance. In “Leading with Gratitude” Adrian Gostick shows that gratitude boosts employee engagement, reduces turnover, and leads team members to express more gratitude to one another, strengthening the bonds within teams. He also shows that gratitude has benefits to you for those expressing it, and is one of the most powerful factors in predicting a person’s overall well-being, more important than money, health, and optimism.

Despite these benefits, few executives effectively utilize this simple tool. In fact, Gostick says that “people are less likely to express gratitude at work than anyplace else.” This is because of a series of a series of myths which are almost the opposite of seeking gratitude – some think that fear is the best motivator, that people get enough praise already, that they know it anyone, that there’s not time, that it sounds too paternalistic,  that its better to save praise for when people really deserve it, and it can sound fake.

The best leaders look out for how people contribute and seek reasons to express their gratitude. This requires leaders to look for the good things, not just the problems; pay attention when things are going well, not be consumed by problems. It is also about recognising effort and intent, even if it doesn’t succeed, and small things that might seem trivial but are vital. It’s also about being timely, saying thank you in the moment, not at some later review point. And the leaders role modelling, also encourages others to be grateful to each other too.

We all take gratitude for granted. But it can go along way, and transform attitudes and performance. I will never forget the boss who gave me his company car for a week to drive. Or the colleague who collected an award, and immediately gave it to the youngest team member, rather than putting on their own desk. Or the leader order her team new smartphones with special team screensavers for a job well done. Gratitude doesn’t need to be about money, it could be a personal gift, a small act of kindness, or two simple words.

Gratitude is also not just at work, but in life. A business leader isn’t anything about family and friends. They are the hidden support team who give encouragement, motivation and sacrifice to help us achieve more. And it also yourself. We recognise that we need to challenge ourselves, push ourselves, lead ourselves. Maybe also, just occasionally, indulge yourself too.

Invictus

by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.