It felt like someone had their hands around my neck…
Heat was coming up through my chest and neck; the next thing I know my face felt like it was on fire
My stomach felt like it had been excavated by a blow torch…
These are sensations shared by people reflecting on unexpected emotional reactions that derailed them, causing them to do or say something they regretted. Even though they could recall the sensations later, each one said they ignored it in the moment.
Think about the last time the demands of a deadline or the impact of financial bad news triggered something inside you. Did you notice your breathing or other bodily sensations? Or did you dive into your reaction? How we adapt to the stress caused by emotionally-charged events can determine how well we sustain ourselves as leaders.
Pressures impacting sustainable leadership
Sustainability is a word we see everywhere–usually in reference to the environment, energy, and business. Here is a dictionary.com definition for sustainability: pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse.
If you think of yourself as a system to sustain, how can you maintain your viability as nonprofit leaders when your consider that a top challenge for many leaders is knowing which fire to put out first according to a report by Bridgespan? The stress of facing constant fires is alone enough to wear a person down.
In the Daring to Lead 2011 study, many executive directors said they felt efficient in leading themselves, but the negative impact caused by the economy was another story. Sixty-five percent (65%) of executives reported significant levels of recession-related anxiety. As one leader shared:
“I don’t know if I’d call it burnout but more panic. The 3:00 a.m. stuff for me is, my gosh, how are we going to find the money? And the feeling that it’s very personal, that it will reflect on my leadership, but also that it will affect people who are doing really amazing work—people who I don’t want to let down. More important than my own ego is that I think what I am really talking about is fear.”
YOU are the resource to sustain!
A self-sustaining organizational system has strong, organizational adaptive capacity, which includes having resources that are sustainable, adaptable and flexible, according to TCC’s sustainability formula for organizational effectiveness. Adaptive capacity is defined as “the ability of a nonprofit organization to monitor, assess, and respond to internal and external changes.”
As you come up against things that drain your energy and endurance, your capacity to adapt can feel evasive.
“In the context of a threat, real or imagined, our emotional state can rapidly shift to fear or anxiety, said Philippe Goldin. “This shift in emotional reactivity occurs in our limbic system, or our emotion brain.” We need to call on our wise mind to help sustain us as leaders. Wise mind is where adaptive capacity for leaders lives. It’s the place where reasonable mind and emotion mind overlap, where we “grasp the whole picture when only parts were understood.
Going back to the executive above, when stress, anxiety and fear take over, our rational mind tries to kick in. We think we need to leave emotions out so that we can make wise decisions. Right? Not exactly. We need both emotion and logic to make balanced decisions. Yet, wisdom can be hard to find in these moments unless we prepare ourselves to access it. The real challenge is how to develop a theory of being based on finding your wise mind so that you can sustain yourself as a leader.
How do we reach wise mind to sustain our leadership? Here’s my suggestion:
“Intentionally finding and practicing the habits and rituals that give life to our vital self, and keep us engaged with our enduring leadership vision.”