Responding with Intention: Leadership after Crisis

Responding with Intention: Leadership after Crisis

In less than six months, bushfires have ravaged the environment, homes and livelihoods of thousands of Australians. The toll on human and animal life has been vast, sparking a resounding debate about the quality of our leadership in the face of this crisis.

As we return to work after the break, we may all feel the need to step up to a new level of leadership. Providing a steady hand on the tiller and acting with purpose in the face of upheaval, is critical now.

For this reason, we’re offering a new training course “Coaching and Mentoring During and After a Crisis” in the coming months. In the meantime, here are some thoughts.

How the reptilian brain hijacks the executive brain

As people leaders, it’s incumbent on us to soothe our own anxieties so we can coach and mentor others with a fully functioning executive brain. We can have a whole toolbox of neat coaching or mentoring techniques, but they’re worthless when the reptilian brain is active.

How do we know when the reptilian brain has kicked in? You know that feeling when your thinking is fuzzy and unclear? Maybe your heart is racing, or adrenalin is rushing through your body. Your breathing is shallow. Perhaps you’ve noticed nothing until a snarky comment escapes your mouth and your significant other has taken offence. It can sneak up on you, an accumulation of little anxieties and before you know it, you’re in survival, fight-or-flight mode. You can’t be useful to others when you’re in that state. I know, because it happened to me, and I had to consciously calm myself after months of bushfire crisis that brought the fires to within 20kms of our home.

When you’re in this state, and you want to respond in an adult way to whatever has triggered you, there are some steps you can take. I find this model personally useful.

Leadership after a Crisis
Self-Awareness Model for Leaders after a Crisis

Techniques to re-engage the executive brain after crisis

The first step is to simply stop and notice what’s going on in your mind and body. Take a deep breath so you can slow down or stop the waterfall of thoughts. Give your feelings a label—is it fear, anxiety, shame or something else? Just acknowledging the emotion will help engage your executive brain.

Then, look at how you can reframe the situation, thought or issue that’s triggering you. If you know something about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), then you may be good at challenging your own thoughts or beliefs (I’m not very good at that, but I do respond well to someone else challenging me). You need to recognise that cognitive bias has entrapped you, so look intentionally for alternative explanations or ways of thinking.

By now you will be feeling calmer and you can choose how to respond rather than acting on autopilot.

How does self-awareness support coaching and mentoring?

Your reports and colleagues may be coming back to work tired, anxious and demotivated. If they’ve had personal losses they could find it hard to cope. You may feel challenged when people are present but not productive—how do you coach someone through that? It won’t be easy, but it will be impossible if you’re in a triggered state yourself. So, before you have any coaching or mentoring conversations in the next few months, try scanning your mind and body before you begin. If you’re feeling even slightly triggered, run through the steps above to summon your executive brain, lead with intention and expertly guide your team out of crisis to calmer waters.

Best of luck!

© Melissa Richardson 2020.

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Leadership after a Crisis


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