In the event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure…
Sometimes, ‘life’ gets in the way of business. And life, well, you're bound to experience turbulence. Our emotional state can be de-railed in an instant by an argument with a spouse, worries about money or lamentations fuelled by the ghosts of failures past. When these things occur unexpectedly, they naturally impact our ability to focus on business. But it’s when big personal traumas hit, that things can derail all together.
As the leader of a business, your mood, level of patience and attention span can have enormous cascading effects on your ability to lead your staff. A mentor of mine once quoted an in-flight cabin crew warning to me when I was enduring a particularly horrendous phase in my personal life: ‘Ash, in the event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure, masks will fall from the ceiling. Please fit your own mask before assisting others.’
It sounded a little trite. It sounded a little self-absorbed. But the more we spoke about it, the more it resonated. The premise being that if you’re walking around like a zombie, snapping at anyone who asks you a simple question (or start welling up at random), you’re not going to function as an effective leader. It all comes down to acknowledging when you’re not in a good place. Then, knowing how to alter your thought patterns to retain patience and concentration – which will insulate you against the worst of any potential fallout.
You need to fit your own mask and make sure you’re breathing and able to function before you can guide others. When life gets a little dark, these are the things that keep me sane:
Limit your event horizon
As humans, we’re anatomically wired to exist in the present. And while we may operate in neutral, we’re constantly ready for fight or flight. But, most of us don’t need to flee a disgruntled lion in order to survive. So when faced with emotional trauma, rather than address the present, our response is to regret the past or fret the future. The thing is, we can’t change the past and have limited insight into the future. What we do have considerable influence on, is our behaviour right here, right now. When you’re struggling, shortening your event horizon to one or two days (and what you need to achieve in them) is a great place to start.
Over time, you can extend your horizon to a couple of weeks. Then, plan a bit more without becoming daunted by the yawning open road in front of you. After a few more months, you can begin to plan for the remainder of the calendar year. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, you’ll be able to look further into the future without fretting over the ambiguity it represents.
It’s no secret that I believe in being as transparent as possible; with everyone. But in that initial post-trauma period, it certainly helps to have a few confidantes on your board and in your senior executive group who are empathetic to your plight. Leadership is isolating enough at the best of times, but when you’re feeling ostracised from the world in other aspects of your life – the feeling of loneliness can be overwhelming.
Engage with your mentors
One of the most valuable friendship groups you can have is a small network of mentors. I’ve enjoyed wonderful relationships with people who have exceptional business pedigrees and are older and cleverer than I am. The wisdom they have across all areas of life is priceless. When shit goes down, having some erudite mentors around to give you perspective will allow you to recognise that whatever is happening now is simply another transient chapter in your life.
Of course, sleeping and eating well is going to set a platform to keep your emotional state a little more levelled. However, the one aspect of healthy living that I’d focus on is exercise. I’ve found that when I’m physically drained, it’s practically impossible for me to feel as worried. The physical state of exhaustion (complete with tired muscles), made it hard for me to feel tense, even when I found myself dwelling on upsetting trains of thought.
Focusing on yourself first isn’t designed to encourage self-obsession or the neglect of your colleagues or responsibilities. It’s simply about recognising that unless you’re in the best emotional state possible (given the circumstances), you won’t be able to live up to those responsibilities.
So please fasten your seatbelt, put your seat in the upright position and remind yourself of the nearest emergency exit. Hopefully, you won’t need the latter.