Hi, I’m Ian McClean. I’m the founder of Flow Group and GreenLine Conversations. And this podcast has grown out of the chaos that’s been thrust upon us. During the podcast, I’m going to try and share with you the best of 25 years of helping corporate organizations deal and cope with change. So, as you’re out there, busy making sense of it all, trying to cope, and maybe, in some cases, trying to rebuild your organizations, I’m hoping that some of this can be of some assistance. We’ll keep it deliberately short, because I know you’re busy. Let’s dive in.

And so, welcome to the first episode of 2021. It was all going so well before Christmas. Vaccine on the horizon, looking forward to a Christmas break. And now, here we are right back in lockdown, with cases rising all over again, with the soundtrack of homeschooling surrounding us. The most important thing about this year as you look forward, and the most important ingredient in the performance of your enterprise, is, amongst the many things, one thing. And that is you.

Essentially, the speed of the leader is the speed of the crew. And, unfortunately, there’s still no blueprint for the chaos that we find ourselves in. And the harsh reality of leadership and being a leader is that the buck still stops with you. I’m reminded of Jeremy Irons’s character in The Lion King, which is Scar, when he’s overlooked for the throne, and it goes to his brother. And his remark is life’s not fair. One of the parts of the mantle of being a leader is a bit like being a parent. You resign all rights, and you assume all responsibilities, and that’s just the way it is.

So, as you look forward with your team, your enterprise, and your family in 2021, and you’ve got to make decisions, you need to be at your very, very best. And it’s hard. So, this episode is going to be dedicated to investing in and enabling your number one asset to be the best that it can be. And that is you.

I’m going to share three things with you, and conveniently, they follow the acronym of PPE. So, your own personal protective equipment, looking after yourself first, and putting on your own oxygen mask is a critical element of leadership. So, how do you do that at the start of the year in a way that will sustain you all the way through?

The first P stands for Perspective, the second P stands for Priorities, and the third E stands for Equilibrium.

Let’s begin with Perspective. And to do that, I’m going to begin with a parable. There was a merchant who was entering a new town. On the verge of the new town, he met an old man by the side of the road, and he inquired, “What are the people like in this town?”. The old man answered a question with a question. And he said, “How did you find the people in the previous town?”. To which the man replied, “They were open, they were convivial, they were collaborative”. The old man said, “I think you’re going to find the people are going to be pretty similar in this town”. Sometime later, another merchant on his way into the town stopped at the old man and inquired, “What are the people like in this town?” The old man asked the same question, “How did you find people in the previous town?”. To which the merchant replied, “They were close-minded, they were stupid, they weren’t very friendly”. The old man said, “I think you’re going to find people pretty similar in this town”.

You see, there’s a difference between the situation and the way we interpret the situation. Every one of us, as we engage with the situation needs to create our own story and attributed meaning. And the meaning we attribute to any situation is as unique and as varied as there are people and personalities. Whatever story we attribute to a situation becomes our reality. And it’s very important because it’s how we filter the rest of the world.

It’s not the situation that’s critical. It’s the narrative we attach to it. That’s the important bit. This is often referred to as “confirmation bias” because, actually, within the situation, we see what we’ve programmed ourselves to see. Let’s look at an example.

One perspective or meaning we could give to the current situation is that things are at their worst. They couldn’t get any worse. We’re in mid-January. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s miserable. Cases are rising all over the world. Schools are closed, and businesses are depressed. That’s one perspective.

An alternative perspective is that we’re actually at the lowest point. And from here on in, things are only going to get better because there’s a vaccine on the horizon and it’s already being rolled out all over the world in the early stages.

If we contrast our current situation with the last time the world suffered a global pandemic, which was during the Spanish flu in 1918. During approximately a two-year period between 1918 and 1920, the fatality rate globally was somewhere between 50 million and 100 million deaths. This is more than World War One and World War Two combined.

Compare that to the current rate of fatalities with COVID-19, which is less than 2 million all over the world. After the last pandemic, during the Spanish Flu, the following decade saw a flourishing of humankind. During the next ten years, in the 1920s, humans advanced through technology and produced everything from electricity to the motor car, radio, the telephone, and the elevator. So we could expect that after this period is over and we navigate through it, which we will, we can prepare ourselves and brace ourselves for a period of flourishing during the next years.

We know that in all situations, there is light, and there are dark corners. It’s where we put our attention that matters. And what meaning we create for things. As Wilde said, “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”.

It’s important and critical as a leader that whatever narrative or meaning we attribute to things is one which has optimism in it. Nobody wants to follow a doomsday leader. But not false, crazy optimism that isn’t grounded in reality. As a leader, we need to create a story. We need to have a conviction around a story as purveyors of optimism that conveys optimism to our people and hope to our people whilst at the same time acknowledging the reality that surrounds us. We need to acknowledge the gutter whilst inclining ourselves and our people towards the stars.

The second item to share is the second P, which is around Priorities. One of the difficulties for leaders, particularly when you start looking at the year ahead, as we do typically in January, and we start our thinking and our planning, is that there’s no blueprint for what’s going to happen next. Trying to predict how the year is going to go is an impossibility, and a fruitless exercise really when we can’t even really predict what’s going to happen in the next four weeks, such is the state of the chaos that we find ourselves in.

One of the consequences of this is there are so many things that we could do, or that we could focus on, or that we could choose that many people suffer from paralysis. The tyranny of choice means that there’s too much choice, and there are no right or wrong answers because nobody’s ever been here before.

The risk is that we either do too much or we do nothing. It’s critical that we decide what our priorities are and we’re able to focus our energy and our attention on that as leaders, both for ourselves and for our people to be able to create and give clarity to people at a time whenever they’re suffering from chaos and they’re wondering what to do.

Here’s a very short but very effective exercise that you can do in 10 minutes or less that is going to help with understanding what your priorities are. Get a sheet of paper, get a pen, and get a stopwatch which lasts five minutes. In five minutes, brainstorm as fast as you can all of the things that you feel you want to accomplish during 2021.

Right down the list. Don’t stop, don’t analyze, it’s pure brainstorming. It’s a pure, free flow of ideas. If you do it properly, you will get 25 items or more done in the five minutes allocated. But it’s important that you put your five-minute timer on. At the end of five minutes, which is probably the time it will take you to have your double espresso, you will have 25 items that are there on the list.

Then, get your pen, look down the list of 25, and circle the top five that you most want to accomplish that would add the greatest value if you accomplished it during 2021. Because, if you have 25 priorities of things to do that, just simply equates to having no priorities at all. Get your top five, circle them and concentrate your focus on those five for the year ahead.

Pareto’s 80:20 rule applies very much in this situation. What people find when they do this exercise is that identifying what the top 5 are from the 25 that you’ve got listed is a revealing exercise in and of itself. And find out what did it, or does it, reveal about your real motivations? Your real desires? What really matters? It’s a very short exercise. It’s a very dynamic exercise, and it will lead you, in some way, towards identifying what your priorities need to be for yourself, for your people, and for your enterprise during 2021.

The third element or the third item is E for Equilibrium. And what this has got to do with is it’s got to do with your own mental robustness, resilience, and ability to cope as you move forward through the year. One of the things that’s been true of the pandemic for any of the leaders that I’ve dealt with is they report that the range and fluctuation of emotions that they’ve experienced during this time has been far greater than the norm.

There’s been a greater frequency and a greater intensity of vacillating from the positive to the negative feelings about how things are and how things are going. If that’s the case for you, it’s perfectly understandable. It’s perfectly human. And it’s perfectly reasonable. In order to try to reduce the range and the intensity of the fluctuation of emotion, we need something that’s going to help us to do that and keep our spirits up, our optimism up, and our resilience high as we walk through the tight rope of the pandemic.

Everybody is pretty familiar with the idea of KPIs in a business for your enterprise, Key Performance Indicators. This is like a dashboard of things that are able to instantly reflect back to you the state of health of the business.

If you were to think about it through the lens of yourself and your own mental stability and resilience, what are the key sanity indicators that you would have if you had to assemble them or create a mix of things that if they’re all in the right space and they’re all going well, would give you the best resilience ability to cope with whatever comes as you try to navigate through the chaos.

Imagine it a little bit like a stool. If you have one or two legs on a stool, it has no stability. If you have three, you’ve got more stability, and four, more stability still. So think about ingredients a little bit like a recipe. If you had to put together a recipe for resilience for yourself to keep you sane no matter what the situation is out there, what would those things be?

It may be things that nourish you. It may be things that you enjoy. But there’d probably be a balance of things. Some people like to have reassurance that their financial affairs are in order. It might be that your key relationship at home is doing well and that you’re getting on well. It may be that there’s a hobby that you’d like to indulge yourself in. You like to get lost in reading. Lots of people have taken up sea swimming. It may be that you want to have the assurance that you have a routine that involves the right level of physical exercise or activity and sleep and that your diet is okay.

It makes maybe that you just want to do things that scare you in a positive way. It may be that you want to do something that you are learning or constantly learning. But there are many, many things that each of us has, which is as individual as we are, that when you put them together in a particular recipe, if all of them are present to some degree or another and they’re mixed and balanced, it just means that you’ll have a higher potential to stay upright and deal with the situation that you’re currently in.

I have this in the corner of what my children affectionately call my ‘war room’, and I’ve got eight post-its. And on each of those post-its are elements or items that are critical or important to me. The important thing is that I’ve created the cocktail with the ingredients of my choice and that they’re visible so that I can, at a glance, look up and see if I’m not feeling so great, is there an element or an aspect of my KSI’s my Key Sanity Indicators that are lacking or are flagging and do I need to pay something some attention?

The single ingredient that combines the Perspective, the Priorities and the Equilibrium, the PPE of your own resilience as a leader is that it gives us back, to use the old cliche, it takes back control. We are the ones from our perspective, who decide what our choice is of narrative. What’s useful for us. We are the ones who decide what actions to take. They’re our priorities. And we are the ones who decide on what makes us feel nourished and what the cocktail recipe for that is in terms of our own resilience.

One of the primal fears we have, which has been activated and agitated during this pandemic is the feeling of the loss of control. After all, that’s really what this pandemic has taught us more than anything else. In each case, under the headings of PPE, it gives us an opportunity to take at least the illusion of control and make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

As a final send-off, we need to be a little bit more compassionate with ourselves throughout this year. Self-compassion is something that is going to help us not to be too hard on ourselves.

And I’ll finish off with a quote from Leonard Cohen’s song from 1992 Anthem. And it goes as follows, “ring the bells that can still ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in”.

Until next time, stay safe, stay sane, stay connected, and have a great 2021.

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