Spring 2003

Finding the Calm in the Storm: Helping Leaders Cope

The following is a list of thoughts that were offered to a group of government executives to help them cope with the complexity and conflicts in their jobs. These ideas are suggestions that surfaced from readings, people’s experiences and simply lessons of life learned in the workplace. Enjoy and pass along.

"Uni-Tasking" — Many managers take pride in their ability to multi-task, doing everything from phone conversations, e-mail and reading simultaneously. Give yourself the opportunity to bring your focus to just one thing, and to give it your complete attention.

Listening — Similarly, it is good to remind ourselves what all management books suggest — to be engaged listeners. It is not only a gift you give the person you are with, but it gives you a moment to place all of your mental energy in one place. This is particularly challenging (and useful) at meetings.

Your Windows — The windows in your office are more than simply a light source that augments the fluorescent fixtures. They are an opportunity to look beyond your desk, your office and your immediate issues. Take a moment during the day to broaden your view.

The 50-Yard Journey — In an effort to squeeze more out of each day, e-mail and phones have become the choice of communication. Leave your desk to pass a note, to share a thought, to ask a question, but also use those "50 yards" as a chance to breathe, refresh yourself and slow down.

Sanctuary — In an article by Harvard Professor Ron Heifetz, he emphasized the need for leaders to have sanctuary, "a place where they can go to get back in touch with the worth of their life and the worth of their work." It does not need to be a physical place you go to, but simply a moment you give yourself to reflect.

Lunch — Is lunch a place in the middle of the day where you consume the calories you need to get to the end of the day? Can you use it as a time and a place to also nurture your mind? Take a walk, close your door, or simply enjoy what you are eating.

Letting Go — A confrontational discussion, an angry e-mail, or the "bomb" that lands on your desk first thing in the morning. These challenges all can start our adrenaline surging and our emotions boiling. Before you hit "send" or dial the phone, ask if what you want to say will actually help you and others. And once you have settled on what to do, let go. The pain, anger and anxiety these interactions can cause are mainly what we carry, rather than what was delivered.

* Three Breaths — It is something we always have with us anywhere we go. It is a moment to help you calm yourself, return to where you need to be, and give yourself a smile.

* The Red Light — As you come and go, think of red lights as an opportunity to stop your mind from racing as well. As you stop, simply take a calming breath versus thinking of the light as a barrier to getting "where you want to go."

* Silence the Radio — Give yourself the gift of a few minutes of silence. As much as you like NPR or the "oldies," set aside time in your travels to turn off the radio. Enjoy the morning, the sunrise, or just the quiet.

* One with your Car — I loaned my car to a friend, and she returned it with this verse taped to the dashboard: "I know where I am going. My car goes with me. When I go fast, my car goes fast." A nice reminder that you have a choice, whether you are traveling or leading.

A Precious Gem from the "Free to Be Me" Retreat at Charter Hall, January 2003

It’s the delicious stuff that traditions are made of — a moment so delightful that it’s impossible not to want to repeat it again and again and again. There were a few such moments with the younger-than-usual crowd at Charter Hall in January. With a total population of 13, six of whom are under the age of seven, there were plenty of moments easy enough to leave behind, as well. But one fond memory is worth sharing here.

Colin Sidley wanted cookies. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that he NEEDED cookies, he craved cookies, he was obsessed by the notion of eating cookies, and no reasonable substitute would do. The meals were meticulously planned and executed. Annie and Steve, being of sound mind in provisioning, wouldn’t think of stimulating our already super energetic flock with processed sugar — WE HAD NO COOKIES. Well, not real cookies anyway. Luckily, the cupboards were stocked with all the imaginary essentials for making our own — what the heck, we were headed for a meltdown, why not make some imaginary cookies?

Out came a cookie sheet — a 3-D one. There wasn’t time to find any more props. With fearless abandon, I listed the ingredients and pleaded with Colin to help measure and mix. As he was still not on board, Annie chimed in her support. It was cold outside — remember late January? — but beads were now forming on my brow as I creamed butter, sugar, flour and eggs together in our imaginary bowl. By the time we were ready to add the chocolate chips, the cynical child approached, half-willing to help the crazy lady spoon the dough onto the greased cookie sheet. Then he went outside to play. VICTORY! ... until Annie and I realized the whole thing was a scam, unless we could really come up with the goods.

We were seriously fooling ourselves thinking he’d forget about the cookies anytime soon. We’d merely delayed. We hadn’t defused. Luckily there was gas in the car and a few dollars in our wallets, so Annie and I, giggling and giddy, hightailed it to the convenience store down the road with hopes as high as Colin’s. A few boxes of Chips Ahoy would have to do. By now Annie and I were both in a (mindful) sweat. We ran right into Colin and several others between the car and the lodge, our coats bulging shamelessly with odd corners and angles. The pressure was definitely ON.

Blasting the oven and doing my best to bury the boxes in the garbage, Annie stalled the boy while I warmed the store-bought cookies. With not a breath of a moment to spare, Colin muscled his way into the kitchen, anxious to "tell us so." And then it happened — he opened the oven and the look on his face brought tears to my eyes. He believed.

For the next 15 minutes, little fingers and faces got covered with melted chocolate chips as the children discussed the possibilities of magic cookies. Next time, we’ll make our own cookie dough and stash it away in a secret place. Now, when thinking about our next retreat, I do so look forward to making imaginary cookies with Colin.