How to build your Leadership Long Game

As I write this, most of the world has entered a second and more ferocious wave of COVID-19. What makes wave two even more challenging is that at the very moment we are all weary and discouraged after long months of social restrictions, school disruptions and isolation, we are being called to brace for more. At the very moment when our resolve is weakening, it seems the worst is yet to come.

For leaders, this is the time when you are being asked for more and you are running out of both stamina and compassion. This is the moment in the marathon when you hit the wall knowing there are still many kilometers to go. This is when you need to find a new gear; this is when you need to find your long game.

In the coming weeks, I will explore the leadership long game. What it is, what it requires and how to build it. But first, just as the first step to preparing for a marathon is to build your base level of fitness, the first step to building a leadership long game is to cultivate a reliable home base.

What does it mean to have a reliable home base?

There are many names for this – inner core, inner strength, ground or even leadership operating system. It is a reliable and trustworthy interior world that you can return to again and again, to refuel, to find wisdom and clarity and to find comfort and compassion.

I like the metaphor of home base because we can all think of what a reliable home base means to the well-being and development of a child. If a child is fortunate, home base is a comfortable and consistent place of safety, encouragement, boundaries and unconditional love. If a child is not so lucky, home base can be a place of uncertainty, unpredictability, neglect or even abuse. If it is reliable, it contributes to the child’s sense of worth and value and ability to function in the world. If it is abusive, it sets up a lifetime of pain and suffering.

And yet, how many of us provide that kind of loving, values-centered and psychologically safe environment for ourselves. Is your inner dialogue loving, encouraging and honest or do you vacillate between self-loathing and self-indulgence?

In our leadership development programs, exploring and building your leadership home base is the first order of business. This is where we work with our participants to create the essential ground conditions for effectiveness, impact and resilience. It is essential for the leadership long game.

Five ways to cultivate a reliable home base.

  1. Reconnect with your compelling why

I like to ask my clients, why does that matter? It’s an invitation to lift up from the current struggle and remind yourself why you are here. This sense of your own contribution and what it enables can act as an injection of jet fuel during difficult times. I have watched countless leaders go from stuck to inspired by simply taking their focus off the immediate problem that is plaguing them and putting it onto the question of their compelling why.

There is growing evidence that this has a foundation in neuroscience. In recent studies conducted at Case Western Reserve University researchers found using fMRI scans that coaching participants who articulate their personal vision activated “networks and regions of the brain that are associated with big-picture thinking, engagement, motivation, stress regulation, and parasympathetic modulation.” (from The Neuroscience of Coaching by Richard E. Boyatzis and Anthony I. Jack; Consulting Psychology Journal: 2018)

  1. Strengthen your inner guidance system

If a sense of purpose and mission comprises the foundation of your home base, values act like its inner supporting walls.

Understanding the values that underpin your leadership and your sense of right and wrong and being conscious about how you honour them in your day-to-day behaviour, offer you a reliable guidance system in times of uncertainty and volatility. When your leadership is guided by your values, you feel and create a sense of resonance and build your capacity to make tough decisions that may be unpopular. You can use that sense of resonance to guide you when the environment is chaotic and sustain you when you feel lost and depleted.

  1. Keep your promises to yourself

I once worked with a very petite Executive as she was training for the Boston Marathon. She was just five feet tall, with short skinny legs. There was nothing about her physique that looked like a marathoner. I was intrigued, so I asked her to describe how she was training for it. At one point, I shook my head and said, “I wish I had that kind of discipline.”

“You don’t have to have discipline,” she said, “you can build it. I’m not naturally disciplined, I just train it, in the same way I am training my body to run this race. It’s like a muscle, flex and repeat.” This notion that discipline was something I could cultivate, was a game changer for me. I had never seen myself as disciplined. I saw myself instead as an Olympic-class procrastinator, allergic to discipline.

Over time, I learned that not only can you train discipline, there are little hacks that can make it doable even for those of us who are not naturally disciplined. This enabled me to consistently keep my promises to myself for the first time in my life. Unlike the guaranteed to fail practice of making New Year’s Resolutions or the spirit crushing yo-yo practice of whipping yourself with unrealistic goals and then giving up; cultivating little disciplines over time grows self-trust and confidence. Moreover, it creates a sense that when the chips are down, you can count on yourself. And it is knowing that you can count on yourself that is so crucial to the long game.

One of my favourite books on this subject is Atomic Habits by James Clear. In a concise and easy to follow way, Clear lays out an approach to building tiny habits that leads to profound change.

  1. Practice self-compassion

There is a growing body of research connecting self-compassion with resilience in times of great stress. According to researcher, Kristen Neff, who has devoted her life to the study of self-compassion, “Individuals who are more self-compassionate tend to have greater happiness, life satisfaction and motivation, better relationships and physical health, and less anxiety and depression. They also have the resilience needed to cope with stressful life events…” (The Transformative Effects of Mindful Self-Compassion, by Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer.)

According to Neff and Germer, practicing self-compassion impacts networks in the brain by down-regulating the threat response (fight, flight or freeze) and activating the mammalian care system, associated with feelings of self-nurturing and soothing.  Mindful self-compassion enables the leader to face reality while offering access to the parasympathetic nervous system. But self-compassion practice also supports healthy responsive behaviours like protecting boundaries, ensuring your needs are met and motivating leaders to act mindfully and effectively. As Neff and Germer put it, “Self-compassion motivates like a good coach, with kindness, support, and understanding, not harsh criticism.”

  1. Cultivate Inner Wisdom

Think of cultivating inner wisdom as being a good steward of your own mind. This involves being both a non-judgmental observer of your thoughts and feelings as well as the ability to discern between your inner wisdom and your inner critic. 

It begins with the cultivation of meta-cognition, sometimes called “witness mind”. This is the ability to observe your own thinking in the present moment. This enables you to create a space between stimulus and response so that you can be less reactive and more responsive to what is happening in your environment. In developmental terms, it is your ability to move more and more of the inner workings of your mind into your objective awareness. When you become aware of habitual patterns of thought that work against you, you can consciously return to a more grounded, rational and compassionate way of thinking and perceiving the world. Over time, this builds confidence and self-trust.

Mindfulness-based meditation is one of the most effective ways for building the capacity for witness mind. Jon Kabat-Zinn who is credited with popularizing mindfulness as an intervention in stress reduction, defines it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Mindfulness and other forms of meditation have been studied extensively and the evidence of their benefits is overwhelming. Studies point to significant health benefits like reduction in stress, anxiety and burnout, improved sleep and improved immune function. It also has numerous benefits for leadership including improved emotional regulation, enhanced emotional intelligence, greater creativity and problem-solving capability. One of the key benefits to the leadership long game is that mindfulness supports a healthy relationship with reality. Mindfulness trains you to meet the present moment as it is. This is essential for effective leadership in times of great stress or crisis.  

A commitment to mindfulness practice does not necessarily need to involve long hours sitting on a cushion or multi-day meditation retreats. As little as a few minutes of daily meditation or even regular moments of mindful breathing, moving or eating can be beneficial if they are practiced consistently over time. The cumulative effect of these small shifts to present moment awareness throughout the day can have a profoundly positive impact on your sense of clarity, calm and general well-being.

A sense of purpose and values and the cultivation of discipline, self-compassion and mindfulness are the building blocks of a reliable home base – an inner sanctuary where you can return again and again for support, encouragement, motivation and wisdom. This creates a stable foundation on which you can build and develop the habits of physical, mental and spiritual resilience and flexibility essential for the leadership long game.

In the weeks ahead, I will explore the mental habits of long-game leaders along with simple practices you can adopt to radically improve your own leadership long game.

Image by Maurizio Izzo from Pixabay

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About the author:

Cathy Jacob

Cathy brings a unique skill for deep listening, an unwavering belief in her clients and a gentle sense of humour to her coaching practice. She opened a full time coaching practice in 2004 and in 2009, she co-founded Fire Inside Leadership to expand the impact of leadership development and coaching in her community and beyond.

1 Comment

  1. Susanne Landry on December 2, 2020 at 3:03 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this, Cathy! It was a great article to return and read, following our coaching sessions; as well as the group session I attended recently with Fire Inside. Thank you!

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