Keeping your head.

Helping your people thrive in tough times

I was never much of a reader as a child. In fact, outside of comic books I hardly read at all if I could avoid it. But the one book I remember actually enjoying was a battered old copy of The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. I found it at a jumble sale, it’s cover held together by Sellotape, and it was a treasure of bizarre and bloody stories which kept me amused for hours.

One of the stories was of Sisyphus, the first King of Corinth - a legendary liar, swindler, and cheat. The first time he died, he captured Death in order to escape back to life; the second time, he tricked both Hades and his wife into letting him go. This didn’t go down well with the gods.

So, the third time he died, a by then disgruntled Zeus made sure he didn’t escape again, and just to make a point, condemned him to an ingenious fate. Sisyphus would have to roll a giant rock up a hill, and he would only be released if the rock made it over the top. But every time, just as he was almost there, the enchanted rock would roll back down the slope to the bottom.

There’s a reason the labour of Sisyphus holds up as a common metaphor even now: how doubly devastating failure can be when it’s felt within touching distance of success – when the light at the end of the tunnel really is an oncoming train.

For many of us, these recent, fleeting weeks of getting back to the office, meeting up with friends and colleagues, chatting in person between calls and meetings, have been a long time coming and a huge relief. The way some of my clients spoke about it, reminded me of that moment John Mills, having finally made it back to civilisation in Ice Cold in Alex, eventually downed his pint of Carlsberg.

But now it looks like there’s another hill to climb; another push required; another Sisyphean stretch of remote-working semi-isolation in store for all of us, that will once again test our collective resilience and resolve.

The first thing to say is we need to learn the lessons of recent months, particularly around the mental health and productivity of our people. We need to make far more time for informal conversations. Find new ways to walk the shop floor. New channels help our team and those customers we serve, feel valued, listened to, and understood.

More importantly, we need to find time for ourselves if we’re to be in any state to properly lead those around us. What we used to think of as “pointless” meetings without an agenda, and “idle” time in calendars between calls - they have never been so critically important as they are now, for our own sanity and productivity.

But above all else, we need to take off any rose-tinted glasses, and rationally and objectively look at the situation ahead, and the decisions we now need to take.

Good leaders, CEOs and entrepreneurs are optimistic by nature. But hope doesn’t help with resilience over the long run. Probably the best example of this was shared by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, when he described the “Stockdale Paradox”.

Admiral James Stockdale was a US naval officer who survived over seven years of incarceration and torture in a Vietnamese POW camp, with no idea when, or even if, it would ever end. When Collins interviewed Stockdale, he asked him how he had endured, while so many alongside him hadn’t.

“It was worst for the optimists,” replied Stockdale, “the ones who said, ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas’, and Christmas would come and go – they suffered from a broken heart. I never wavered in my faith,” Stockdale explained, “not only that I would get out, but I would turn it into the defining event of my life that in retrospect I would not trade.”

As Collins summarised: you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Right now, a lot of business leaders will need to take a leaf out of Stockdale’s book: have faith in the long term – this too shall pass – but be brutally realistic about the coming months. Get back to the worst-case playbook. Move fast, be decisive, make the most positive impact you can, right now.

We will make mistakes, but we have been here before and we can do better this time with what we’ve learned from the last. Or as Alf Ramsay told his England team before that 30 minutes of extra time in the ‘66 final, “You’ve beaten them once, you just need to go out there and beat them again.”

So, your challenge for this week is this: write down the top three things you should prioritise, for supporting your team, making space for yourself, and getting a true, brutally honest perspective on the decisions you need to take. And drop me a line with them if you’re willing.