Updated: Mar 19
As a leader, what do you do when life throws unexpected and painful curveballs your way?
I’m not talking about the day-to-day challenges of navigating increasing market competition, addressing resourcing concerns, stemming cashflow problems, handling the demands of a new job, working your way through the thick political landscape of your organisation or driving up engagement and productivity across your business. Instead, I’m talking about curveballs like life-threatening illnesses, divorce, major financial crises, loss of loved ones, and the like.
No matter your background or age, you will have discovered along the way that life brings with it trauma, pain and loss. Some things are easy to deal with and so we move on, chalking it up to experience. Other things, however, require extended periods of grieving or professional interventions for us to get anywhere close to being able to move on.
So, as a leader, with all the demands and pressures you face to deliver results and engage your teams, what do you do when life hurts? I mean really hurts.
In the Spring of 2014, I was about to find out, again.
I was working as a Learning Director for a London based Employee Engagement & Customer Experience agency. During a lunch break, I called my mum to let her know that my wife and I were really keen for her to join us on holiday to Spain with our 3 boys. Mum was totally up for it. It would be her first major holiday with our family, since her retirement a few months prior, so it was an exciting prospect all round. There was also another agenda – my wife and I were looking forward to encouraging mum to be creative in making the most of her retirement. We especially wanted her to stay active and engaged.
No more than 10 minutes after our conversation, mum called back and her opening line gave me goosebumps. I literally felt cold chills sprinting down my spine. She had forgotten our earlier call entirely. She really couldn’t recall what we’d discussed. I was in shock. My sister had been complaining that mum was becoming more forgetful. I had barely noticed, until now. A few months later, mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
The pain of seeing a loved one inflicted with Alzheimer’s is like watching a car crash in slow motion. Mum regressed from being “forgetful” to having her identity obliterated before our very eyes. She has been stolen from us and, to make matters worse, there’s someone in her place, who looks exactly like her, teasing us with the possibility of her return. And every time we see a glimmer of hope, it’s instantly whisked away.
Here we are coping with one of the painful curveballs life has thrown our way. However, as is often the case, the rest of life still goes on – clients still need great services, products and solutions; bosses still need updates; teams still need vision, encouragement and inspiration; businesses still need growing and developing.
What do you do?
Now, you could just say, “Man up!” “Toughen up!” “Soldier on!” in these situations but, as someone who now helps leaders to build and grow their resilience, I know that doesn’t work. In fact, that’s more likely to lead to depression or other mental health challenges.
So, do you run, hide, ignore, deny or numb it? Many do. However, there’s a much better way.
From personal experience, here are 7 of the best approaches I’ve found to not only respond to life’s painful curveballs and navigate the turmoil in a healthy way, but come out stronger and even more effective as a leader:
Acknowledge the Pain– None of us typically enjoys painful situations. At the same time, we know there can be inherent value in experiencing pain, whether it’s heartache, disappointment or deep loss. For example, a good workout leaves your muscles feeling painful and sore and yet it’s also bringing about growth and strength. I’ve learnt that the sooner I can acknowledge that I’m hurting, the sooner I can begin to heal.
Stay Connected– As a reflector, one of my character weaknesses is that I choose to withdraw from others during painful periods. As a leader, it takes wisdom to know who to share your tough burdens with and when. After all, you’ve still got a job to do and a team to inspire. It’s tough to do that when you’re down. At the same time, if you don’t have an outlet for sharing your struggles then the pressure will only build and become toxic, not only to you but also to those around you. I’ve learnt that having a strong and trusted support network is critical. My wife is a big part of this for me, as well as my close friends. Going through counselling has also been incredible for helping me grieve in a healthy way and process my thoughts in a safe place.
Get Perspective– Getting perspective when life hurts is one of the toughest things to do and yet not being able to do it means that we’re susceptible to being derailed. One of the most significant areas of growth for me has been learning to see that life is so much bigger than me. Meditation, mindfulness, reading the bible, prayer and journaling have all been powerful approaches that have helped me gain perspective and shift my thinking. As a result, I’ve come to appreciate the truth that it’s not what happens to me that is ever really the issue, but how I view what happens to me.
Take Action– The challenge I’ve found with many of life’s painful curveballs is that they can lead to discouragement and even depression, especially when you believe that there’s very little you can do. Whilst it’s true that my sister and I certainly can’t cure my mum’s Alzheimer’s, we can take steps to help her maintain some sense of quality of life despite the deterioration in health. In life, there’s always something you can do, however small. Even little wins help remind us that though there are a lot of things outside of our control, there are also many things that are within our control and taking action in these areas can make a world of difference.
Serve Others – Many years ago, I undertook a 30 day ‘giving’ challenge and blogged about it. The challenge involved dedicating 30 days to intentionally giving time, encouragement and support to others, including strangers. It was an extremely rewarding experience and reinforced for me the power of humility – not thinking less of myself but thinking of myself less. When all I see is my pain, I lose sight of others; and that becomes a vicious and depressive cycle. Cliché perhaps, and not always easy to do, but finding ways to serve others helps you get over yourself.
Dig Deeper– Tough situations have a way of rocking our world, but I’ve experienced that they also provide a unique opportunity to see areas in my character or mindset that could do with changing or strengthening as I ask myself, “What kind of personal growth could I experience here that would be most beneficial? What could this teach me about life, about others or about myself? What could I still be grateful for?” Digging deep to answer these questions also helps me become better prepared for the inevitable challenges ahead.
Accept Yourself– As a kid, I loved Superman; In fact, I still think he’s incredibly cool. That said, I know that it doesn’t help me to try and be like him when my world has been rocked – invulnerable and imperceptible to pain. I’ve learnt to relax into the pain and say things like, "I just took one for the team," the team of humanity, that is. Self-acceptance is extremely powerful during times of pain. It says it’s OK to hurt. It’s OK to struggle. I’m doing OK. I’m human. I will get through this. In that process of self-acceptance, I find that I begin to access greater resilience and self-compassion than I ever thought possible.
Why does any of this matter?
I have a deep belief that even when life hurts most leaders still want to lead with purpose, with authenticity and with courage. That means knowing how to navigate the painful curveballs that will inevitably come your way.
Applying some or all of these 7 strategies will help you ensure that you have the resilience you need as a leader to continue to inspire your teams, deliver great results and make a difference to your customers and shareholders – even when life hurts.