Leadership and Wellness
Welcome to my blog and new weekly series of articles about ways to enhance the balance in your life when faced with competing priorities and pressures in a rapidly-changing world where time can be in very short supply.
In professional sport, many coaches look for the ‘one percenters’ that will make the difference for the team. The term one percenters means the small but highly influential and consistent actions that make a significant difference. One week at a time, I will provide tried and tested personal wellbeing strategies that have helped others improve their lives and their performance. The plan is to achieve 100 percent effectiveness and personal wellbeing… 1 percent at a time.
Leadership Capacity-Building and Personal Wellness
Most of us want to achieve great things in all facets of our lives but effectively managing the demands of work, maintaining personal wellness, the impact of social media, privileging precious commitments to family and friends and finding time for personal interests and leisure is, for an increasing majority of people, becoming a dream! Worse still, for some of us, trying to keep too many balls in the air is causing anxiety, dissatisfaction and illness. However, it doesn’t need to be this way.
Over my many years in leadership roles, I have been able to employ a number of important strategies and practices that I have either developed or which have been passed on by mentors and experts in the field. These strategies help me balance my time effectively by prioritising my life in ways that bring about calmness when calamity abounds. Like everyone else I know however, achieving a sustainable balance remains an ongoing struggle. I know what it is like to regularly feel overwhelmed by competing pressures but I also know that with the right tools and a commitment to take the required time to reflect and recalibrate, you can have it all.
Leaders need to make personal wellbeing their highest priority in order to be at their peak, as leadership requires an ability to support those around you. You can’t effectively care for others if you don’t care for yourself. It is not at all selfish to make sure that you are the best you can be in order to better assist your family, friends, colleagues and other stakeholders.
Each week I will be providing a tip, strategy or practice that may be of use those looking to find the balance in their lives. I invite readers to respond to this blog with their reactions as well as also contributing your own practices that may be of use to others as we work our way to 100% effectiveness. Contact me to join the discussion!
#10 Embracing failure on your way to success
Address delivered at 2017 University of Queensland Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Graduation Ceremony
When I accepted the much-appreciated invitation to deliver today’s graduation address, I immediately felt overwhelmed by the multitude of readily accessible “best ever” graduation speeches that are available to all on YouTube and Facebook. In Barack Obama’s epic 2012 speech, he told Barnard University graduates to not only fight for their seat at the table, but to fight for a seat at the head of the table. Of course, there’s J.K. Rowling who delivered an inspirational address to Harvard University graduates, encouraging them to cherish their determination and passion in order to know true success and belonging. Closer to home, Tim Minchin’s outstanding 2013 University of Western Australia address listed 9 life lessons covering health, happiness and all things in between.
Unfortunately for you however, the University of Queensland did not spring today for either of the Obamas, nor will you hear from the likes of Steve Jobs, Ellen DeGeneres, or Meryl Streep. For better, or more likely, for worse, you have me. I hope that my take on life might be also be of some assistance to you as you make your way forward. In my few minutes, I would like to share some of my own hard-earned, real life knowledge and experience related to the necessary confidence, resilience and preparedness you will need as lifelong learners for your journey ahead.
Unlike those intimidating iconic graduation speeches focused on success that can always be accessed from the cloud, I want to present the view today that the way we learn the necessary qualities to sustain us through life is by experiencing and embracing failure. Barack Obama and others didn’t talk about their failures when they gave their speeches, but today I want to share one of my biggest. When we talk about failure, the challenge I’m putting to you today is to focus not on the severity of the failure or the injustice or misfortune that we have been served – but how we can recover, reflect and create options to move on and press forward; colloquially expressed as turning lemons into lemonade.
Fortunately, history is full of catastrophic failures from whom we can all learn. We know that Charles Darwin, one of the most influential scientific minds of his time was considered by many as a failure. Disengaged and distracted, Darwin dropped out of medical studies in 1827 and again in 1831. Described as idle, ordinary and below the common standard of intellect, Darwin’s theories on natural selection and evolution have had a major impact on our understanding life on earth.
One of my favourite authors, Dr Seuss, gave up on his intention to earn a PhD in English Literature – instead pursuing a career in drawing. After eventually penning his first manuscript, it was rejected 28 times. Once accepted, his work was eventually translated into 20 different languages with over 600 million copies sold.
The music industry is of course rife with struggling artists – few more famous than the late Elvis Presley. At 18 years old, Presley recorded his first demo disc, which was promptly rejected by Sun Records. A year later, he tried again, with no success. He then failed an audition as a vocalist in a quartet, having being told he couldn’t sing. Frustrated and dispirited, he decided to take up a job as a truck driver. After randomly bursting into song at an opportune time, Presley got the attention of the right people and became the sensation still celebrated today.
Although not as famous as the others, my own life-defining failure rates up there with the best or worst of them.
After qualifying from university as a primary school teacher in 1980, I was appointed to an isolated school 850kms North-East of Perth, three days after the start of the school year. I was given the Year 7 class of predominantly indigenous students after the previously-appointed teacher disappeared overnight after just two days in the job. I drove into the small town late the night before – so by the time I was shown to my isolated classroom and left there by the principal that morning, I was totally unprepared when the bell rang to commence the day. Grabbing a pile of nearby social Studies source books, I handed them out and asked the class to turn to the first chapter.
As luck would have it, the chapter was about Marco Polo and his discovery of silk and other wondrous products during his 13th Century, 24 year journey from Italy to Asia and back. I doubt that there could have been anything more irrelevant to those young people at that moment of their lives, but I pressed on regardless. Inappropriate or not, the round-robin reading strategy seemed to be at least buying me time……… until I got to the biggest, strongest and most admired boy in the class and I asked him to continue reading.
Remaining completely silent, Jeffrey* did not flinch, respond or even make any eye contact with me. After an agonising few seconds (that seemed like an hour) I moved on without comment and without really thinking about how this moment was for Jeffrey. About twenty minutes later out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Jeffrey rise from his chair. After taking a large knife out of his bag he started walking toward me. Unlike my previous interaction with him, he suddenly had a newfound look of supreme confidence!
With the only door at the back of the room, my feet felt cemented to the floor. Had another student not lunged out of his seat and wrestled him to the floor and thereby dislodging the knife, then I may not have been here today.
After all of my training to be a teacher, in my first moment in front of a class it was evident that not only did I provide disengaging content with no understanding how to intervene or support when confronted with a student with learning difficulties, I also had no sense of cultural competence as I shamed the unofficial leader of the class in the most demeaning way possible.
Once he picked himself up from the floor, Jeffrey ran off and I did not see him again until I went home to my barren government-provided house and noticed that he actually lived next door! After my failed day of teaching, I had planned to do precisely as the teacher I replaced had done and just pack up and leave. As I monitored Jeffrey from my kitchen window I considered the choice that I could make. I could either go back to Perth and never speak of this experience again, or I could stay. I knew that if I stayed, I would have to relearn the craft of teaching from scratch. I would need to to make it up to Jeffrey and all of his classmates so that their year would not be wasted.
In fact, for 36 years I have continued to use that failure to influence the performance of other educators. I made it my mission to prevent my experience from being replicated, by ensuring that teachers are no longer put into roles for which they have so little to offer.
Every one of you in this room – whether by good fortune, determination or a combination of the two – have benefited from a great education. However, your obvious intellect, admirable work ethic and prestigious qualifications will not spare you from experiencing failure at some point in your life. At the risk of sounding like a cynic – failure is inevitable ….and quite possibly desirable and important.
So don’t fear failure; embrace it. Own it and use it as the basis of your lifelong learning. The worst thing you can do when it occurs is to retreat. Fear of failure will mean you can’t be bold, you can’t be courageous and you can’t be true to yourself. If you give up, you and the Jeffreys’ of this world will miss great opportunities and you’ll never know how much you could have achieved or contributed. Our failures say nothing about who we are. It is how we respond and how we recover that sets the course for our futures.
I stand in front of you today as a failure. A once newly-minted teacher who nearly packed it in on my very first day. The same failure who finishes next week after nearly five years as the Director General of Education and Training, working with my talented colleagues in Queensland throughout a period of spectacular system achievements.
As I send you all off on a lifetime of productive failures, I conclude with the insightful words of Dr Seuss – a fellow failure who made good:
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.
And you know what you know.
And YOU are the person who’ll decide where to go.
You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)
Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Dr. Seuss, 1990
15 December 2017
#9 Workplace burnout: You can do anything, but not everything
Despite sometimes being difficult to recognise, burnout can have serious implications for workplace culture and productivity, and more importantly, your personal health and wellbeing.
Burnout is exactly as the word implies. The internal engine that drives you is operating inefficiently and at a very low capacity. When this is ignored, it can break down completely. Much like a mechanical engine, maintenance needs to be both proactive and restorative in order to avoid serious problems down the track.
As Arianna Huffington wrote on her blog (huffingtonpost.com Oct 21, 2013) in relation to recognising your burnout and then doing something about it, “There is no company whose bottom line will not be enhanced by healthier, happier, less stressed, well slept, centred employees.”
Workplace burnout can be mistaken for less serious issues, meaning it can often be disregarded for too long. It may include a combination of indicators, including constant lethargy, fitful or elusive sleep on an ongoing basis, unusually short tempers, general anxiety and a propensity to catastrophize minor problems, an inability to concentrate, low immunity, procrastination, distrust of others, avoidance of some tasks including social interactions, fear of making mistakes, and range of unexplained physical ailments such as headaches, stomach cramps etc.
The sooner you recognise the change in performance, the more easily the problem can be identified and addressed – preventing further damage and returning you to full capacity. If you clearly aren’t yourself and you’re not gaining workplace satisfaction, the first step is to take stock and speak to trusted others about how you are feeling. The hard part for many is telling those closest to you that something is wrong without specifically know what it is.
Secondly, you need to consider burnout as a condition to be treated, rather than seeing it as a personal failure. It is very important to seek confidential professional help – don’t dismiss it as just a phase that you can overcome. Speaking to your doctor or a therapist is the beginning of the way forward. Listen to the expert and collaboratively design and implement a wellness plan. It is likely that your burnout is also affecting your family, friends and colleagues. You owe it to yourself and those around you to put yourself first and do whatever it takes.
Thirdly, don’t let your job define who you are or what you’ve become. Leadership comes with great responsibility and accountability, and operating at a sub-optimal level often impacts on one’s self-belief and esteem. Working in toxic or high stress environments are pathways to burnout and potential medical issues – removing yourself from an unhealthy environment can sometimes require a total career and lifestyle change. Don’t let your job take you down.
To address your burnout, rely on the personal traits that most likely led you to your leadership role in the first place: compassion (this time for yourself), resilience, strength and the bravery to admit there is a problem that needs to be addressed.
In short, looking after yourself and focusing on your burnout will have positive impacts on those around in every way. You can’t lead and support others without ensuring your capacity to do so. In the words of every good airline, “Put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you”.
29 November 2017
#8 Treat yourself!
Contemporary high-performing leaders often strive to be all things to all people. They work hard, aim to please everyone, attempt to exercise regularly, try to eat well, and struggle to maintain contact with family and friends. They compile endless and uncompleted ‘to do’ lists, have a large stack of books to be read next to their bed, and feel disappointed when tasks on the plan are left undone. For many, the constant pressure to achieve and perform in all domains results in burnout and a sense of personal failure.
To balance and support the strong service ethic that most leaders strive to uphold, there needs to be a proportionate investment in your own wellbeing. This means regular bookings in your weekly schedule – time reserved to ease stress or to reward yourself. I believe that in order to be an effective leader, you need to take a regular break from that treadmill that never turns off.
There are many different strategies or rewards that leaders cite, but sometimes creating these commitments can add to that pile of things-to-do; compounding the pressure we put on ourselves and adding more tasks that are never reached or achieved. By building rewards and stress-relief into your schedule, you can prioritise your wellbeing without feeling like you are less productive.
For some people that could be making time for exercise or reserving one night a week for quality time with family or friends. Other stress-relieving activities could include regular therapeutic massage, yoga, meditation, wine tasting, team sports, or a catch-up away from the worksite with a mentor. Diarising opportunities to switch off and shut out the world for one hour per week is an investment into your health and wellbeing, affording extensive and sustainable benefits for your body and mind.
My golden rules for self-preservation include:
- Do not take your physical and mental health for granted – work on these strengths as you would for any other aspect of your life.
- Block out set times in your calendar on an ongoing basis for reward and renewal activities.
- Let your colleagues know that you have prioritised time each week – modelling this means you can grow a culture in your workplace where colleagues support and enable each other to focus on their mental health and wellness.
- Never feel guilty about investing in yourself. Your improved productivity, energy and vitality will compensate for the time away from competing commitments.
31 October 2017
#7 How to be continually inspired by others: The ties that bind
From time to time we all feel inspired by people in one form or another. Whether it is a great sportsperson, musician, actor, teacher, leader or simply a friend who serves their community, most of us are motivated by the achievements, courage and conduct of others. Through the people we observe or meet in our daily lives, we all find inspiration in the most unlikely places – often without even consciously thinking about it.
Translating subconscious inspiration into habitual personal improvement takes proactive effort and reflection. Allowing ourselves to be inspired by others means we can use these observed qualities in times of need. One major challenge for our need to find inspiration in difficult times is that when a moment of crisis consumes you, taking time out to think of others who model helpful behaviours is not always an immediate priority. So how then can we turn admiration, appreciation or inspiration into performance enhancement when we are in the moment?
In crucial times of need, one of my most effective strategies to call upon the magical powers of those who have inspired me is to regularly recognise those people (or source of inspiration) in a tangible and material way.
Over the last twenty years, whenever someone I have admired or who has been a source of inspiration to me has passed away, I have purchased a new tie in their honour. The tie is very carefully chosen for its distinct pattern and colours to represent the qualities and personality of the person concerned, and I write their name on the back. Each time I wear their tie, the process of tying the knot is a time to reflect and to channel the inspiration and energy of that person as I ready myself for the day ahead.
This ritual is incredibly important to me. It helps me to remember those who have departed, and also frequently reminds me of qualities that I would like to concentrate on throughout the day.
For example, on days when I know that I have difficult issues to deal with, I deliberately seek out the tie of a highly accomplished leader with whom I once worked, who always displayed supreme confidence and courage under pressure. Knowing that I am wearing ‘Brian’s tie’ reminds me that Brian would have dealt with any situation with a highly principled, ethical and passionate approach, ensuring the best outcome was achieved no matter how ferocious the opposition. Brian’s tie is red and he would have loved my choice.
I now have over 40 ties that inspire me – and I genuinely love every one of them. Most of them are in memory of friends or people I’ve known, but occasionally they are for significant achievements of heroes that I have admired from afar (AFL footballer Jim Stynes for example.)
I know what you are thinking….that very few people wear ties every day (including half of the population!). However this simple concept can be applied to bracelets, scarves, shoes, socks or any other material object. My experience is that having a tactile memory of your hero attached to you is an ongoing source of incredible comfort, confidence and pride.
25 September 2017
#6 There are no medals for not taking leave
I read recently that a public servant in the Northern Territory had accrued almost $400 000 in annual leave. Surprisingly, many Australian employees appear reluctant to regularly access their leave entitlements. According to a recent YouGov/Croner poll, only one in three workers take their full holiday entitlement, and QSuper estimates that in 2015 Australians had around 123 million days of annual leave accrued.
Annual leave is provided to make sure you can clear your mind, relax, reconnect with loved ones, sleep, reflect and reinvigorate yourself. It is not provided to endlessly accumulate, or to add to your superannuation when you retire or to be kept as a buffer in case you are ever terminated. When leave is cashed out, it usually accrues a higher level of tax. More importantly, working for so long without a break creates a propensity for illness and burnout.
Over the years I’ve observed employees and friends who have worked themselves into the ground – accumulating leave by forgoing annual holidays year on year. Luckily most organisations have policies or strategies in place to prevent this happening for too long. Annual leave is vital for mental and physical health, and does little good when utilised for its cash value years down the track. Even for many of those who do take holidays, there is often some anguish about when the most appropriate time would be to ensure that the employer is not inconvenienced. Indeed, in many organisations there is often pressure not to take leave at all or at certain times of the year.
It is easy to forget that annual leave is your reward for working hard. It is important to take it when it suits you and your family or friends, not prioritised for when it suits the employer. As I say to all of my co-workers; there will always be deadlines, priorities and critical issues, so there is never going to be the ‘right’ time so take the leave. If your organisation can’t cope with you being away, then it is a sign that you are probably not in the right job!
Tomorrow is not promised to anyone, so using your leave annually to re-balance your life is a fundamental need. It is just as valuable for you to be refreshed as it is for your employer to have you return to work feeling more productive and energised.
So, assuming that I have convinced you to take your annual leave annually, the next challenge is to ensure that you get maximum value from the experience.
Here are my five essential tips to ensure that you make the most of your leave:
- Plan and book your leave well in advance to ensure that you and your employer are well organised.
- Try to take your leave in large blocks, allowing a significant component of this time for genuine rest and relaxation.
- Commit to your next holiday upon your return to work – allowing you plenty of time to save, plan and to enjoy the anticipation.
- Disable your email, social media and news apps. Just use your phone for emergency contact (like when the kids or your house-sitters need an emergency vet for your dog!)
- Don’t spend your holidays constantly curating your photos on social media for the whole world to enjoy. Relax, switch off and enjoy the people you’re with. Forget about impressing the people you’ve escaped!
31 August 2017
#5 The benefits of prioritising sleep
This week we learned that four in 10 Australians suffer from inadequate sleep, and this costs us $66.3 billion per year in health care, accidents and loss of productivity. I’m sure no one needs to be told again that sleep is fundamental for good health and lifelong wellbeing – but let me do so anyway! Most of us ignore this important advice and it may be causing more harm than you think.
Sleep regulates your brain and ensures that it functions effectively by forming new pathways to help us learn and retain information. According to the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (2017), sleep deficiency can negatively influence decision making, problem solving, behaviour and negotiating change. It can cause impulsiveness and has been associated with depression, suicide and risk-taking behaviour. There is also evidence that sleep deprivation can enhance the risk of many physical health problems such as weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke. Studies show conclusively that tiredness can harm your capacity to drive safely as much as, or more so, than alcohol.
The Harvard Business Review (van Dam & van der Helm: 2016) demonstrated that there is a proven link between effective leadership and getting enough sleep. According to many research studies it is accepted that adults need a minimum of 7-8 hours sleep per night; every night.
For busy people and leaders in particular, adequate sleep becomes a casualty to working late, travel, social events, anxiety through overthinking work issues and very early morning fitness. In fact, less sleep often becomes the solution to getting more done.
Many people falsely believe sleep deprivation is the only way to maintain productivity and to keep up with everything that others require of you. In reality, less sleep may solve short term problems but eventually it will cause severe personal and professional harm in the longer term. The trouble is that we all know sleep is important but we just don’t know how to prioritise it!
My 1% tip for this week is to consistently prioritise sleep over everything else. This means:
- Forgoing early morning exercise if you’ve had a late night. Getting enough sleep is as important to your heath as your exercise and diet.
- Working shorter hours to ensure you get your full quota of sleep. If you do have to work late, go to work later the next morning.
- Develop a bedtime routine and stick to it. Decide on a ‘home-time’ for social and evening events.
Many people find sleep very difficult even if they do prioritise the time and set a routine. Not being able to get to sleep is not a sign that you can cope with less sleep. You need to find the cause of this sleep deprivation and adjust accordingly. Some suggestions are:
- Make sure you have suitable lighting to ensure your body produces melatonin at the correct time.
- Wind down well before bedtime.
- Go to bed when you are really tired.
- Be careful with your evening food and beverage intake. Avoid heavy meals, caffeine, nicotine and too much alcohol.
- Get the temperature right.
- Practice relaxation to minimise sleep anxiety.
- Try to keep to a routine which includes not oversleeping.
Additionally, my personal tip for much better and longer sleep is to take magnesium daily to relax your muscles and enable you to get to sleep more easily.
Body and Soul (Courier Mail July 23) recently published an edited extract from Breathe by Jean Hall, providing techniques to relax the mind and induce sleep when it otherwise seems impossible. The four stage strategy works as follows:
- Lie on your back and rest the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
- Slowly inhale through your nose and count to 4, then hold your breath for 7 counts.
- On a count of 8, softly breath out through your mouth, with your tongue relaxed.
- Repeat this until you nod off.
10 August 2017
#4 The greatest risk is to take no risks
As a result of negative experiences we learn very early in life that failure is a bad thing. Many of us are hard-wired to assess every outcome as a win or a loss and to be honest, failing or losing is not always a good feeling. An unfortunate consequence of applying this “winning or losing” measurement to everyday experiences is that some people move through life fearing failure and are unwilling or unable to take risks or to move out of their comfort zone. However, for those with resilience and a capacity to bounce back when things don’t work out, “failures” can be pivotal moments for learning, improvements and growth.
I recently met a teacher who was preparing for retirement from her safe, high-performing metropolitan school. She had been there for over a decade. While she had enjoyed a long career in the profession she had felt that she could have done more. As her time for departure loomed she saw an advertisement for a ten-week relieving position in a remote community school in the Far North of Queensland. On this beautiful tropical Island in a community that faced the challenges of isolation and a lack of services and comforts, I met that teacher almost six months after her ten week relieving role had concluded. She has since signed up for the long haul as a continuing member of staff, thereby giving back to a challenged community that adores her and fully appreciates her vast experience, passion, community leadership and polished professional skills. She could not be happier and only wished she had done it earlier in her life.
Taking risks in your personal and professional spheres are often negated by your personal circumstances. For example, having a large mortgage may prevent some from seeking different careers or starting their own business. Personal challenges at school in one’s early years can later prevent mature-aged people undertaking further study, learning a second language or a taking up a musical instrument. Fear of failure and an aversion to risking what you have now are powerful forces that prevent so many people from fulfilling their dreams or seeking new opportunities.
I recently came across the following paraphrased anonymous quote which reinforces why we need to allow ourselves to become the person we were destined to be;
“The real test of a successful life would be, on your deathbed, the person you became meets the person you could have become.”
Life is short and of course there are obligations we have to meet despite our aspirations and dreams. However, taking risks can be exhilarating and life-affirming. Reflect on your leadership style and personal attitudes and seek to challenge yourself. Make sure that if you ever get to meet that person you could have become, you are looking in the mirror at yourself!
24 July 2017
#3 Time management and time creation
I’ve been searching for an article or a book with the title “How to Create Additional Time” for most of my life. As yet I haven’t found one – so I’ve decided to write my own.
I seem to remember having all the time in the world when I was younger, but as I’ve grown older and gained more experience, the more time-poor I seem to be. Don’t get me wrong, I still get a lot of things done. It’s just that I never seem to ever complete my ‘to do’ list and I always feel like I’ve never finished my homework. I’ve often said to friends that I wish there was an eighth day in the week that only I knew about so I could attend to all of those things I never seem to get to.
However I am pleased to say that after much research and trial and error, I have discovered the magic solution and I’m now going to share it with you. It was actually sitting there right in front of me all along, and I was just too busy to notice or work it out. I was probably reading too many of those Time Management articles that try to teach you how to do more tasks at a faster pace!
The great majority of people won’t believe that my solution is possible. However as you are still reading despite your intense desire to stop and check your social media or download a new multitasking app, I’m now going to reward you with the most important life-sustaining strategy you are ever going to be equipped with.
The only solution is to do less by reducing the number of things you do.
Of course, this is not easy. You have to be courageous. You need to measure the return on investment you get from the time you spend on the range of tasks you undertake. Specifically, you must stop doing things that aren’t relevant, enjoyable or could be done by someone else. There is, in fact, no other way to get your life back in order.
Here are my 5 tips on how to achieve more by doing less:
- As I wrote in my ‘Journaling’ entry (#1), read your journal entries of three months ago and identify which things you were working on at the time did not matter. From this, learn which tasks you can remove from your current schedule.
- Dare to say no more often.
- Spend more time building the capacity of those around you in preference to micromanaging or correcting the work of others.
- Eliminate all attempts to multitask. Concentrate (at a clean desk) on one task at a time.
- Don’t be defeated by deadlines. Most often if the information required is really important then people will wait (and if they don’t it probably wasn’t that important anyway.)
And finally, the best strategy I have ever been told:
At the end of the week put all of those papers and unfinished projects in a cardboard box under your desk and the things that are genuinely important will eventually crawl out and find you!
12 July 2017
#2: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Recently I’ve read a few leadership articles that have included references to a phenomenon labelled ‘Imposter Syndrome’ – a condition that I had previously never encountered. However once I understood the symptoms of this cleverly-named syndrome, I immediately recognised it as something I had suffered from many times throughout my career. Indeed, the more I talked to others about Imposter Syndrome, the more I realised that it is probably better titled as an Imposter Epidemic.
Imposter Syndrome is a phenomenon many of us face when we find ourselves in unfamiliar roles or situations where we feel vulnerable, under-qualified and inexperienced. It’s that feeling you have when you don’t have a clue about the issues being discussed at a meeting, and that fear of saying something stupid in front of the experts – catching you out and damaging your career forever. The best way to describe this feeling is that you feel like an imposter and that you don’t deserve to be wherever you are.
It is important to note here that Imposter Syndrome is in your mind. The person whose knowledge and expertise you admire likely feels it too – or at least they once did. When we admire the skills and abilities of others, we are not as critical of their areas of weakness or inexperience as we are of our own. We are our own harshest critics.
While this can be a natural reaction in some situations, suffering from Imposter Syndrome impacts your self-esteem, sense of identity and your capacity to learn and grow. Spending your working life dodging exposure is not a sustainable way to spend your time.
You need to rid yourself of these negative thoughts and emotions immediately. So how can Imposter Syndrome be cured or overcome? Consider the following:
- Stop aspiring to be like everyone else in the room. Even the most confident and deft user of acronyms and esoteric industry jargon suffers from this syndrome from time to time.
- Remind yourself that you reached your position by being the person you are, so don’t look to change too much in these moments of discomfort.
- Consider explaining how you feel. Just about everyone will identify with you and in most cases, will go out of their way to ensure you are treated inclusively and with respect.
- Break the tension by asking for explanations, clarity and more simple examples. Tell the experts that you don’t know what they mean or that you don’t understand. People like to have their expertise sought and confirmed, so usually they will happily oblige. Invariably most other people in the room will thank you for it on the way out! We all love simplicity no matter how complex the situation.
- Leaders don’t have all of the answers, nor do they need to be the content experts on everything within the organisation. Asking questions and seeking to understand is both endearing and wise.
- Rather than feeling like an imposter, think of yourself as the new star player who has not yet learned the game plan. Role play in your mind that this team needs you but they just don’t know it yet. It is your responsibility to dig deep to find out what it is they need from you.
- Above all else, never ever play small. If you find that you really don’t fit in, then you are in the wrong place or role and it’s time to move. Learn to recognise Imposter Syndrome. When it makes you feel small, change your body language by sitting or standing taller, unfolding or uncoupling your arms and holding your head up high.
- Be different to the others and seek to understand rather than to impress. Practice makes perfect!
30 June 2017
I love to regularly write in a journal to record my thoughts, observations, beliefs, successes, concerns, aspirations, mistakes, fears and plans. I use specially-purchased journals and in this digital world, I love to engage in old-fashioned handwriting without having to open a laptop and all that goes with the creation of a formal document. For many people I have met, the idea of journaling has become just another task that is added to the ‘to do’ list. However, regular writing in a journal can be therapeutic and purposeful. It will only be sustainable if the process is engaging and rewarding. For me that reward is to let me see over time what I really think about the world around me and, importantly, to keep reminding myself that nearly all of the big issues that so regularly confront me are not really big issues at all.
I think the real benefit from journaling relates more to the regular reading of your journal rather than simply recording your thoughts. To ensure that my journal provides maximum benefit, I limit my free-flowing writing time to about 15 minutes and then once I finish I turn back to the book-mark that I keep at the entry made two months previously. Invariably, the reoccurring message that I get from reminding myself what was on my mind a few months ago is that those issues that were foremost on my mind are usually no longer as important as they seemed at that time. I never cease to be amazed how problems get solved and then replaced by new concerns. The result has been that over many years I have learned to ‘not sweat the small stuff’ and to preserve my energy for the things that really matter. It is instructive to look for patterns, both positive and negative, in my thinking and reactions over time through my writing. My journal has therefore become a very important self-coaching tool.
My tips for effective journaling are:
- Don’t over think your journal entry. Just write it as it comes to your mind without correction or assessment.
- Try to complete your entry in no more than 15 minutes so that it does not become a chore.
- Don’t become a slave to daily entries. Every few days is OK but do it is solitude and privilege the time.
- Invest your effort into analysis and the identification of themes when you reread your entry from two months ago.
- Once a year invest sufficient time into reading the full year’s worth of entries.
- Your journal is not a diary or a legacy for your family so don’t try to record every event or write for an external audience. Remember it is to help you reflect and learn about yourself and your real priorities.