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Photo credit: Alastair Humphreys

On Becoming a Resilient Leader

It’s lonely at the top. But it doesn’t have to be.

Update 28th April 2020:

A version of this post was first published in early January—the world feels changed in light of covid-19—millions of businesses struggling, the empty calendars and the palpable uncertainty—the inherent fragility of our way of being is out in the open.

We need self-aware, anti-fragile and courageous leaders now more than ever to collectively navigate this storm and emerge more resilient on the other side.

Being a leader is hard. Really hard. No-one hands you a map to get there. Committing every fibre of your being to a mission and team is a noble human pursuit, but carries with it, the risk to mentally, physically and emotionally overwhelm.

Many of you, having worked in fast-paced and chaotic organisations can relate to the Herculean challenge of remaining centred amidst stressful scenarios or attempting to support others whilst navigating burnout.

This is part of the exponential leadership learning curve — realising that you are both your company’s greatest asset and its weakest link.

But before we unpack the concepts of ‘emotional resilience’ and ‘burnout’ — I’d like to share a personal story that will provide context as to why I feel drawn to dedicate the next chapter of my life to exploring these questions.

🌊 My Journey Navigating Loss

In the wake of my own path as a startup founder of the storytelling platform Maptia, over the past six years I mentored over 250 London-based startup founders and leaders through Zinc.vc + Escape the City.

Those that I saw succeed in the long haul weren’t the ones who steered clear of catastrophe (quite the opposite!) but those who learnt to effectively navigate the crises had a strong understanding of their own psychology and its impact on emotional triggers during these times of intense uncertainty.

Yet outside of my work in the startup accelerator community, where burnout is often measured in terms of lost revenue & opportunity cost, it was at home that I witnessed the most devastating impact of depression & anxiety.

My partner and fiancé had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and on morning of October 23 2017, when I was travelling in Portugal, I received a call from a dear friend:

“Jonny… I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you this. It’s Sophie. Her body was found this morning. She had an anxiety attack at work. It looks like she took her own life.”

Sophie was my partner, a junior doctor back in England, we were engaged. I put the phone down and collapsed onto the floor. It was too devastating to comprehend. As the reality of what had happened begun to sink in, along with it everything I had envisioned for our future together begun to self-combust.

It was this two year rollercoaster of navigating grief and the loss of my fiancé that shattered everything I thought I knew about resilience. It wasn’t about ‘staying strong’ but learning how to be weak — how to ask for help and embracing radical enquiry for the deep pain that I experienced.

A few months ago I was invited to give a TEDx talk on ‘The Gifts of Grief’, in which I shared what I had experienced about enquiring into and ultimately surrendering to the deep pain of loss.

Reflecting on my own journey since her death has led me to pursue resilience coaching in a professional capacity, working as an advisor to Studio D, helping their teams become more resilient whilst navigating challenging environments and facilitating masterclasses.

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My partner Sophie, preparing for a chilly sea swim at Brighton beach

🐺 The Myth of The Lonely Struggle

It’s common to hear that we should learn to be resilient, yet far from being an innate character trait, resilience is a skill that must be practiced — which requires permission to invest time & resources into cultivating it, which for most people is a financial constraint.

Instead, it’s all too common for those of us working in leadership positions to just to work longer hours until something gives way. With decades of experience working with founders and leaders as a former VC and coach, Jerry Colonna believes:

“Leaders who persist out of stubbornness, believing themselves to be gritty, are at best delusional and, at worst, reckless… that struggle exacerbates the everyday pain; we struggle to accept the roller-coaster ride for what it is: life.“

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Jerry Colonna, Author of Reboot

Think about the volume of support that even amateur athletes receive to bring out their highest potential — from nutritionists to physiotherapists and coaches — yet the majority of entrepreneurial leaders are expected to go it alone.

With over a decade in the tech world, I find it slightly astounding how little support and training is geared towards upgrading our mental toolkits.

There are endless online courses and accelerator programs that will teach you how to scale a marketing strategy or raise capital, but very few that effectively teach you to self-regulate your emotions and scale yourself as a leader.

In any fast-paced team, the real bottlenecks to growth isn’t — as we might imagine, technology — but the very human challenge of regulating our emotions and relationships.

David Cancel, founder and CEO of Drift puts it this way:

I’ve witnessed first hand the devastating impact of what can happen when our emotions are pushed under the surface and accumulate until something breaks.

💰 What Are the Costs of Burnout?

Burnout is defined as: ‘the physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress’.

If you work in the startup world, it is likely that you know someone who has experienced depression, anxiety or burnout, or have experienced it yourself.

Perhaps you still believe that you’re invulnerable.

“If you haven’t experienced burnout and you don’t know what it is, it’s very easy to believe it could never happen to you — especially if you’re earlier in your career.”

– Joel Gascoigne, Buffer Co-founder

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Joel Gascoigne, Buffer Co-founder

I was fortunate to spend a week wandering the west coast of Ireland with the poet David Whyte last year and he shared something that has stuck with me:

“Work is where we can make ourselves; work is where we can break ourselves.”

Many of us find purpose through our work, and push ourselves hard, but this has lead to significant burnout especially with those in positions of responsibility, both publicly and behind the scenes.

Whilst certainly not limited to the financial costs: founder and leader burnout severely impacts the bottom line of companies — yet it’s still not taken seriously at work.

One founder told us that his depression cost their startup ‘A third of our funding’, another C-suite exec wrote ‘We lost about 9–12 months over a period of 3 years’.

In collaboration with the research and design team at Studio D, I’m aiming to change this. We are in the process of talking with hundreds of founders, leaders and VCs around the world, in an effort to understand the scale of the challenges you face, and to build a financial and emotional case to invest in wellbeing.

So far, we’ve heard from over 180 founders and leaders, many of whom have directly experienced burnout, or witnessed the results of others going through the same process.

But the costs go so far beyond the financial impact, one executive from Oakland wrote:

“My relationship with my partner suffered as we didn’t have enough time together, and the time we did have was largely spent with me trying to rest/recover… I often turned to alcohol as a “mini-break” to relieve the stress. My mental health suffered as I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to carefully consider how to escape this situation.”

Another US-based female executive shared how her brush with burnout led to significant health challenges:

“My sleep worsened due to overworking and I gained 45 kilos… I was so sleep deprived I was falling asleep at my desk and forgetting things my husband and I discussed, which endangered my relationship. My feet swelled two sizes. I was emotionally brittle. I developed full-blown type 2 diabetes in under a year — no exaggeration. I was very depressed. And my work was just… not very good. It was hard to manage others when I could hardly function… I was honestly a mess.”

The sheer volume and the vulnerability expressed in these responses has been humbling and frankly heart-wrenching to read through.

Especially when one considers that the speed of business is becoming faster, there’s always someone willing to do more, for less time and money — it’s a race to the bottom. It feels like a growing moral imperative to at least attempt to shift these trends.

By 2025, we will start to see CRO’s — Chief Resilience Officers. Several pioneering companies already have them (just not yet by that title)

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Photo credit: Alastair Humphreys trekking in Greenland

🤷‍♂️ What if ‘Stress’ Isn’t The Enemy?

Back in my days as a startup founder, I used to equate burnout with too much stress, but lately I’ve been seeing things differently…

Although the media tends to demonise it, there is nothing inherently wrong with stress itself. Athletes create deliberate and intense stress to increase their performance. In fact absence of positive stressors — known as ‘eustress’ — stunts growth.

For example, 250 miles above the earth on the ISS, astronauts will lose bone mass in space because nothing pushes against them. In my work as a coach and mentor, I’ve seen first hand that stress is essential to avoid stagnation and reach our potential.

Given sufficient time for recovery and processing, these ‘stressful obstacles’ forge resilient leaders. It is the alchemy of turning challenging setbacks into fuel for both personal & professional growth and ultimately into wisdom.

In fact, being in a position of leadership is one of the most efficient vehicles of personal growth imaginable. The level emotional intensity (eustress) will serve to surface your previously unexamined fears, insecurities and limiting beliefs.

So the real question becomes, how do we train our resilience to stress as the path to growth?

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Photo Credit: Jan Chipchase // Studio D.

👩‍🚀 Redefining Resilience

“The illiterate of the 21st century will be those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler

Every human begins life as a remarkably resilient creature. Learning to walk is a bio-mechanically stunning feat that many adults would struggle with if they had to learn for the first time.

If you accept the premise that resilience indeed part of our default setting, what gets in the way and how do we reclaim it? Why is it so hard?

What I’ve learnt is that the path to resilience requires overcoming deep cultural conditioning — both in life and especially in the workplace — that equates vulnerability with weakness, that wears workaholism as a badge of honour and often suppresses any ‘negative’ emotions that surface.

Resilience is a process not a final outcome, and one that relies upon cultivating embodied self-awareness — and for me this always begins with embracing curiosity.

🤷‍♂️ We Always Have a Choice

When life’s inevitable curve-balls come our way — a failed launch, navigating burnout or even receiving critical feedback, we have two choices:

1. Numb the pain. Distract, ignore + push down. Close down and carry on.

2. Remain curious. Have the courage to enquire + feel into the discomfort.

It takes courage to choose the latter, to step up to engage with our emotions, it’s much easier to choose the default first option and just work longer hours or numb yourself to sleep with Netflix.

Most of us were raised in a society that perceives vulnerability as weakness, that rewards us for being ‘self-reliant’ and never asking for help.

We’ve been taught to live in our heads and being disconnected from our emotions and embodied feedback.

Our emotions are valuable feedback. You might experiment by saying “What is my body trying to tell me with that tight stomach, sunken heart, clenched shoulders?” And then allow that experience to unfold, for most of us this takes time to learn and hone these resilience muscles.

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Photo credit: Alastair Humphreys trekking in Greenland

🏋️‍♂️ Knowledge is only a rumour until it lives in the muscle

This is one of my favourite sayings from a Papua New Guinea Tribe. Intellectually grasping these concepts is one thing, but putting them into practice effectively almost always requires support from others.

This is why I have partnered with the Studio D. team to facilitate a series of Emotional Resilience Masterclasses + one retreat in Ubud, Bali.

These workshops will explore resilience fundamentals, through a balance of understanding, experiencing and integrating resilience practices into your day, combining in-depth talks, hands-on activities, group exploration and plenty of unique support material.

Resilience isn’t a skill that can be learnt from passively reading a book or listening to a podcast — it is lived wisdom that requires an intimate group setting and full presence and courage to explore this terrain.

Like training for a marathon, when it comes to cultivating resilience — we are literally rewiring our nervous systems and mental conditioning — which is something that no-one can do for you, but solid guidance and support structures go a long way.

As general partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, Ben shares there is perhaps no greater investment that you can make than investing in yourself. And if you can’t spare a day, then you probably need a week…

“Ironically the biggest inhibitor to putting a training programme in place is that it will take too much time. Keep in mind, there is no investment you can make that will do more to improve productivity in your company.

Therefore being too busy to train is the moral equivalent of being too hungry to eat.” — Ben Horowitz

I know it takes real courage to step into this conversation, but if you feel that you’re ready to step up and do the work, then I would love to see you at one of our masterclasses this year.

👐 How to Participate

👨‍🎓 Virtual Resilience Masterclasses // I’m facilitating founders + leaders through these remote Emotional Resilience Masterclasses throughout May. (If you know someone who might benefit from attending please share, we also offer in-house training for teams)

🌴Ubud Resilience Retreat // We’ve booked a beautiful villa in the uplands of Bali for an intensive four day training to explore the fundamentals of Emotional Resilience. Space is limited to fourteen attendees and spots are offered by application only.

📝Leadership Resilience Study, 2020 // In order to better support the community we’re conducting research the range and scope of challenges and solutions. Who should we be talking to? What have we overlooked? If you’d like to contribute, please start by completing the Emotional Leadership in Resilience survey.

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🏔️ The Mission for Curious Leaders

For most leaders, the biggest return on investment is to grow their self-awareness and resilience. We need conscious leaders now more than ever who can act as beacons for others.

I have recently launched a company called Curious Leaders — the mission for which is to empower those in the driving seat to create teams that put their humans first — and in order to do so they must lead by example.

I’m excited to dedicate my life to figuring out how resilience can not only be understood intellectually, but as an embodied daily practice.

Written by

Cofounder @Maptia. Emotional Resilience coach. Meditation Teacher. TEDx Speaker and host of the Curious Humans Podcast.

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