Many of us would think the answer to the question of “Do hard times produce the best leaders?” would be a forgone conclusion. Surely hard times produce the best leaders.
However, what if I told you that there was another list? A much longer list with names of people we don’t know and those who never became leaders? For whatever reason, when hard times came, these nameless people did not survive them.
It is true that hard times produce the best leaders. However, it is also equally true that those hard times cause many people to fail and quit. Adversity can bring out the best or the worst in us.
So the more important question is how do we emerge from hard times as victors rather than victims?
Let us first examine what are considered hard times and the effects they have on us. Hard times, downturn, bad luck, Murphy’s law or whatever you might want to call it revolves around seemingly negative situations that thrust themselves into our lives. It brings about three things:
1. Disruption of daily routines
2. A switch from primary thinking to primal instincts
3. A change from known to unknown territory
Disruption of daily routines
Humans are creatures of habit. Even in the most random person, you will find a pattern of living. We seek to structure and create orderliness in our lives as it brings about certainty. Much of people’s eating, sleeping, working, interactions, thinking and even feeling are mostly routine.
Not all routines are bad though; we need a level of certainty in order to lead a sane life. The more important question is, who is the master in our lives? We or our routines?
Hard times have an uncanny ability to put this question to test. It puts a stop to daily routines. Many people don’t handle hard times well because they have made routines the master over their lives.
How do we know if routines are mastering our lives? It’s simple and we only need to ask ourselves this question: Do I have other things to do if I had to live differently today? When we take away routines, many people are at a loss of what to do.
It’s a common occurrence where people are so busy with work, assignments and life in general and when there is suddenly free time, they are dumbfounded.
How then do we manage disruptions? The answer lies not in what we do during the disruptions but rather before the disruptions. Ironically, we need to get into routines – routines of creating little pockets of uncertainties in our daily life. Why is there a need to do this?
When a person leads a routine life, the autopilot mode creates an environment where the brain is not required to think actively outside the box. This softens or weakens a person’s ability to handle change. As such, when change comes, the person is ill-equipped to manage it.
To create pockets of uncertainties, we can begin by examining why we do the things we do everyday. We will find that behind routines there are objectives. List down our daily routines and also the objectives behind them.
More often than not, we will find that a single objective will be clustered with a few routines. Take a look at the examples below:
Objective: Make a living
Routines: Work, read industry-related articles, network with industry people and attend conferences.
Routines: Facebook, chat with friends, catch a movie and hang out with friends over meals.
Changing our routines for the sake of creating uncertainty is not a wise way to go about it. Instead, why not introduce new objectives in our lives. For example, we can put in the new objective of self improvement. This will cause us to rethink how to allocate time for this new objective and eliminate some routines from other objectives.
Most importantly, act on the new objectives by structuring a few activities and then executing them. By just doing a simple thing like this, we have created little pockets of uncertainties in our lives. We will find that when disruptions come, we are much better equipped to handle change. The best leaders know how to create little pockets of uncertainties in their lives.
A switch from primary thinking to primal instincts
Our brains are wired by nature to survive. The brain’s function is to scan for danger and look for ways to avoid it. A simple example is when we touch a hot kettle; there is an instant response whereby we pull our hands away – even without us actively thinking about it.
When someone hides in a corner and scares us, we are startled – our hearts beat faster, adrenaline enters our system, our senses prick up, our muscles go into a tensed state – all at the brain’s command to get the body to fight or run. This is what we call primal instinct.
When we face adversity, the brain takes on a similar thinking pattern. The brain will look for the easiest and fastest way to end the difficult situation.
There are two time-proven strategies – avoid the problem or quit to stop the problem. While these strategies may help us survive, is that what we want to do with our lives? Merely survive?
Leaders would want to win and not just survive. As such, there is a need to switch our thinking from reactive (primal instinct) to response (primary thinking). To do this, we need to train our brains to do a few things:
1. Stop – don’t do the first thing that comes to mind. Do not react.
2. Think – analyse the situation, remove emotions to get objectivity and get wise counsel for a third party perspective.
3. Respond – pick the course of action that will meet your objectives of winning as opposed to surviving.
It’s easier said than done to do the above. We are constantly being pushed to make decisions as fast as possible with little information and by just relying on gut instincts. The combination of these three things is a recipe for disaster.
As much as we find it hard to believe, there is always time. Use that time wisely to think. Use that one day to think and make a proper decision and not rush a decision that can cost you one year’s worth of time.
A change from known to unknown territory
Hard times are frightening because it brings us from what we know to what we don’t. We fear what we don’t know. Many people get paralysed by this fear and go into the primary instincts to either avoid or quit the situation. Now it is not what we feel that is important but how we respond to those feelings that make us a leader.
Firstly, we need to accept that fear, anxiety and all the other emotions that come with adversity are perfectly normal. In fact, they are beneficial in the sense that you are aware of the problem and that the brain is priming yourself for the situation.
However, if you continue to focus on fear – the problem will always become bigger even when it is not. You fall deeper into a sense of hopelessness and despair. Don’t focus on fear. Focus instead on the positive outcome of what to achieve. This does not take away fear, but instead manages it with the right perspective.
As we continue to focus on the outcome, what happens is that our brain starts to feed off positive emotions instead of negative ones. This makes a world of difference on how we make decisions. So when we face the unknown, acknowledge our fears but don’t focus on them.
So the next time we face hard times, remember we can choose to be on a list of leaders or on a list of nameless people.
Andrew Lau heads the Leaderonomics Campus team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . For more leadership articles, click here.