Sometimes taking time out from your regular routine is just what’s needed to help you refocus. Time-out enables you to learn vital leadership lessons to fuel your success. I was gifted this opportunity recently when I hiked Hadrian’s Wall. Hadrian’s Wall goes on for miles. Miles and miles. The official guide says 84 miles from Bowness on Solway to Wallsend. Yet, for some unknown reason, we managed to make it 90!
I experienced this delightful adventure with three incredible women (aged 20 – 67) and four rather exuberant dogs.
You might think that’s only 18 miles a day; no biggie, it’s not even a marathon. A few years ago, I probably would have agreed with you. I’d happily have packed a couple of pairs of socks, some knickers and a warm top in a backpack. Then jumped in a car and went. But now I feel differently.
If you think you can’t do something, it’s doubtful that you actually will. On the other hand, getting your head in the game sets you up for success. It’s the same in work. Self-doubt and fear always get in the way of doing what you are capable of doing.
Before leaving, I felt utterly overwhelmed. Work was so busy that I heard myself start using it as an excuse. “The timing wasn’t right”, “I’m needed here,” “I can’t afford to take six days off”. The reality was these were all just excuses. I was feeling overwhelmed.
When we feel overwhelmed, it is because of the way we think. I thought, “I can’t do this, and I’ll let people down”. Overwhelm can stop us dead in our tracks. It prevents us from tuning into valuable lessons to help us show up as our best selves. We allow it to limit our potential.
The reason we feel overwhelmed is evolutionary. First, we create a goal; then, our brain gets to work to expose the problems that might get in the way. Our brain is trying to protect us, but that doesn’t serve us. Instead, it triggers our nervous system and stops us from being rational.
A couple of months ago, a surgeon said to me, ‘Say hello to your 75-year-old knee’. Riddled with arthritis, I feared Norman would prevent me from taking this little adventure. (Yes, that’s right, I’ve named my knee. It stops me from getting mad at it, helps me have empathy with his feelings). Then, three weeks before we left, I tripped on a tree root and rolled down a steep bank. Was it a sign from the Universe? I sprained my ankle, and it looked like this hike was going to be off the table.
Already feeling defeated (and making excuses), I had a call with a friend. During which I was told I was completely mad. Even before a sprained ankle, I would only be able to do 6 – 8 miles a day. After all, the terrain was very uneven, and conditions were soggy. My confidence was in tatters. I had planned to do the walk for a fantastic local charity. This charity provides emergency kits to provide lifesaving treatment for stab victims before emergency services arrive to provide essential triage. But with my confidence deflated, I couldn’t, in full conscience, ask for support. I would have felt like a fraud if I hadn’t been able to complete the challenge.
My mind was trying to work out how I could let my fellow ‘Wallers’ down gently. Then two days before, I drew on everything I knew about dealing with self-doubt. I took a deep breath and got rationale. We went.
In conversations with leaders, they tell us they feel overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the regular challenges of leadership and the pressure of hitting their targets after a particularly turbulent year. This pressure is magnified by the challenges of hybrid working and the continued pressure of Covid. The thoughts of overwhelm can lead us to feel panicky and this then limits our actions. The very actions that can ensure we are resourceful.
In these instances, we need to find a way to get out of our heads and lead with our actions instead. Easier said than done, I know, but it is possible. The first step is acknowledging the feeling. By acknowledging it, you can start to accept it and do something about it. Next, you need to work out what is within your control. For example, you might not directly be able to influence the sales yourself, but as a leader, you can certainly create the conditions for others to succeed, or not. If you are feeling the pressure and allowing this to leak to your team then that is going to have a negative impact on performance. It is vital that you stop, take a deep breath and take action to create a positive and stimulating (rather than pressurised) environment for people to bring their best selves to the challenge.
There are many reasons why people plant the seed of doubt or indeed you start to feel self-doubt. There is usually positive intent behind it – the desire to protect you. If you let that doubt permeate your mind, you will never achieve your goals. I nearly allowed the seeds of doubt to stop me even trying, but caught myself just in time and thought “what’s the worst that can happen if I try?” So I went. Day One was awful, it was a grotty day, and I hurt all over. But when I woke on day two, the aches and pains had disappeared. I started to believe I could do it. And do it I did!
At work, you can be reluctant to try new things because they feel strange or it’s not the way you do things here. When you are under pressure it is even less likely that you will try a new way but it’s the very time that a different approach is more likely to bring you success. So, if you are feeling overwhelmed by the challenges you are facing, stop and think “are my actions making a positive difference?” If the answer is ‘no’ then try something else. That is what leadership is about. In its simplest form, it’s about helping others to be successful which demands that you adjust, be flexible and try different ways of creating the environment that helps people excel. Simply giving in to the pressure and doing more of the same could have disastrous consequences.
Whatever you tackle might be painful; it might be hard work or daunting. This can lead you to give up before you really get going. But as the old proverb goes, “A journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step”. Just start. Think, what is the smallest first step you can take to move you forward? Then, with each step completed, your confidence will grow.
James Clear explores this in his incredible book ‘Atomic Habits”. He explains that when you set goals, you often unconsciously set yourself up to fail. You try to change too much. You crash down and give up. But, by working out the first smallest step and taking action, you have moved one small step towards your goal. Then with each step, your confidence grows.
At work, sometimes, your challenges can feel daunting. You can be concerned by the possible risks of taking action, so instead, you do nothing. But when you work out what your first small step can be, you set yourself up for success. This first step needs to be something so small that it can’t create any risk. As a result, you feel more confident to take it. You are setting yourself up for success, which will fuel your confidence to take the next step. You start to break down the negative cycle and set yourself up for success.
There are many blogs about the habits of highly successful people. All of these remind you that these people have structured simple routines that help to fuel them. For example, they get up early, practise gratitude and focus on learning every single day. These leadership lessons are simple habits to build into your daily routines. They help you show up as your best self.
My friends and I are very different. We prepare differently. We tackle a challenge differently, and we respond differently to that challenge – I go quiet whilst they chatter. I’m a big picture thinker. I’d sorted all the big things – the breakdown of the days, where we were staying, food and clothing. But the practicalities of each day I knew we’d sort out on the go. My friends, on the other hand, needed the detail. It frustrated them that they didn’t have the information they needed. Question after question was popping up in the days running up to the walk. These drove me nuts as I was trying to complete my work so I could leave without distraction. We were all frustrated and under pressure even before we’d even started.
Suppose I’d broken down the itinerary. Maybe even delegated some of the preparation to the others, then we’d all have been much happier! And let’s be clear it would have saved a lot of wasted energy and time.
At work, it is essential to secure different views. We need to get varied people and their perspectives involved in a project. Then decide who is best to tackle the various tasks. It is this very difference that provides a 360-degree focus on the challenge. Others will have considerations you might never have considered.
There is a superb Ted take on counting what’s important in life that supports this message. You can find it here.
So, next time you are sensing difficulties with others, rather than seeing it as an annoyance, take a breath and think, “what are they teaching me?”. Then, take action armed with this knowledge. For example, if I had taken a moment to stop rather than trying to firefight, I might have spotted valuable signals. I could have involved the others, which would have relieved the pressure from me and made them feel more comfortable.
Have you ever seen a dog when they awake each day? Waking up leads to a full-body stretch – they don’t call the yoga move downward dog for nothing! They stretch, shake and reconnect with their body. They make sure everything still feels OK, and then, of course, you have that excellent wagging tail. Dogs view the start of each day as a beautiful adventure that has to be experienced.
How often do you wake up like that? Or is your usual approach to wake up and go through the motions? By taking a more ‘dog’ approach, you will bring energy and joy into your day. In addition, it will prepare your state to have a great day, no matter what it might hold.
On our walk, most of it was with dogs on the lead. We had to navigate fields of sheep and cattle, which they just got on with; no resistance. Whenever they could be untethered, they bounded off and did what they did best. They chased and gambolled, sniffed and frankly peed. This joie de vivre is contagious and such an important life lesson from which we can all benefit.
In work, it can be with resistance or reluctance you get on with the stuff you must do. Sometimes even kicking and screaming. When actually, all that negative energy could be put to better use. You could get through the grind more quickly and painlessly. And, you are in a great state to enjoy the freedom of that one job you can’t wait to get your hands on!
Each day, we returned to our temporary home and relaxed over good food and company. We replayed the events of the day. We giggled about the silly stuff and raised a glass to the good stuff. Then spent time acknowledging the experience and celebrating how far we’d travelled.
In work and all its busyness, you often forget to take the time to reflect and learn life’s important lessons. On the Wall, these discussions led to an improvement the following day. We changed the weight we carried, the footwear we walked in and the location of blister plasters! All these small changes made a positive difference to at least one of us. At work, these short conversations can help to unlock a challenge. It can build confidence in someone or adapt working practices to make it more streamlined. The opportunity to reflect can drive high performance more rapidly as we all learn from each other.
Don’t move on too quickly. The positive energy of a small celebration can add fuel to someone’s drive and help everyone achieve even greater things! Remember, we can learn life lessons throughout our journey and often from the most unexpected sources – enjoy your journey!