Coronavirus: earning your ‘black belt’ in resilience and leadership through a crisis
Working through a crisis requires a similar skill set to tackling a randori in martial arts (a succession of attacks from opponents). During the Covid-19 pandemic, however, your main opponent (other than the virus) is yourself.
In Japanese martial arts during a black belt test the candidate will sit at one end of the mat, and three or more opponents will sit at the other end. At the moment indicated by the teacher, the opponents will attack. To pass the test, the candidate needs to find a way to be in charge. They decide whom they will deal with, and in what order. They own the space, take charge, finding an internal calm in the chaos, moving into space, and making active choices. When done well, the opponents subconsciously respond to the pace of the candidate and make adjustments to the candidate’s leadership. This is called a ‘randori’.
Skilful leadership at this time requires more from us than normal, as we deal with our own emotions and responses to the current situation – and we need to help others with their responses.
In our embodied leadership work we simulate a randori based around participant’s work lives. The ‘attackers’ are not physically attacking, but instead they represent emails, texts, phone messages, requests, being ‘dragged into emergency meetings’, offers, feedback and team members who need support. The constant bombardment with these things often represents our days, and just like the black belt candidate, success lies in finding space in the chaos to think and make choices – to lead.
Clear your head, get ready to lead
Finding space in the chaos, being mindful of our choices, rather than being pushed around by the priorities of others, is difficult. It is more difficult at this time, when our work lives have been turned upside down and our freedoms are limited. Many of us are learning to be home-school teachers whilst trying to continue working, and as a result our homes can become pressure cookers of the frustrations of a family unable to live as normal. Additionally, we have concerns about the health and wellbeing of vulnerable family, neighbours and friends.
Skilful leadership at this time requires more from us than normal, as we deal with our own emotions and responses to the current situation – and we need to help others with their responses. It can be easy at these times to be too busy for reflective practices, too busy for coaching or development of leadership teams, and too busy to pause and make choices. It is however, the time at which this becomes most crucial and valuable in order to be effective as leaders, or just simply to look after our wellbeing in this space of messy family and working lives.
We all have conditioned responses when under pressure and they will move us away from choice and towards a pattern we learnt somewhere in our personal history. Some of us will withdraw a little under pressure, some of us will seek to assert ourselves and some of us will move towards a people pleasing response. In extremes we can see this as a fight or flight response, but it’s important to note that being withdrawn, trying to take control of some aspect of life, or trying to find comfort in human connection can all be lower level versions of this conditioning.
To be clear, these reactions are not wrong, and we need to be kind to ourselves at this moment. We are in an extended period of internal and external disorganisation, trying to find new rhythms, routines and ways of working, and dealing with the loss of many aspects of our lives that gave us purpose and meaning.
Taking care of ourselves in the midst of this randori and these emotions is not about pushing ourselves forwards blindly and unkindly, no matter what, or numbing ourselves to the emotions of the moment. Our wellbeing is built on allowing ourselves to feel and fully experience the emotions associated with this disorganisation and grief, and learning to make aware choices about how we move forwards. Those choices could be as simple as exercising, more altruistic such as checking on vulnerable neighbours or taking leadership roles in our work or communities.
Five steps to better leadership
So how do we, like the black belt candidate, find space in the chaos, make our own choices and respond effectively? Having coached people for many years in our simulated randori, I've identified a few practices you can try that make a significant difference.
This relaxes our entire nervous system and sends blood back to our pre-frontal cortex, where we do our complex cognitive processing – i.e. think clearly. When we are put under the pressure of a randori, however, a significant percentage of us hold our breath. This is not an effective strategy as it puts our body under stress and sends our nervous system haywire, but we do it. In a long-term randori, such as the current one, we notice people moving into a pattern of shallow breathing, filling only the top of their lungs. Pay attention to your breath and take time three to four times per day to consciously breathe deeply. A good rhythm is to breathe in for seven seconds and out for 11 seconds – try it and you will feel able to think more clearly.
2. Relax and feel
Tension leaves us more irritable and with less freedom of movement – with less choice – and more likely to be pushed around by those pushing hardest. We all get tense at times and this is a moment where tension is increased. Part of what tension does, is to numb some of the unpleasant feelings associated with the disorganisation of this moment. Right now, we experience the tension of being everything to our children (parents, teachers, playmates, etc.), the challenges of working from home and doing endless video calls, the challenges of countless adaptations. In response our shoulders tense, jaws clench, or stomachs tighten as we manage our frustrations, although we may not even be aware. Each of us has our individual patterns of holding tension and we all tense up in response to our own randoris. Bringing attention to those places in turn we can experience any tension that is present and then relax.
When we see a dancer on stage with perfect posture, we often ascribe dignity to the presence this creates. When our dignity is in some way diminished, the first thing we tend to do as humans is to collapse our posture. If you’re not holding yourself in dignity in the midst of your randori, how do you expect others to do so? So lift your head and extend your spine and allow yourself to feel your own dignity.
4. Enter and extend
Many people in randoris (in the martial arts dojo or in life) can see something coming towards them and then wait for it to arrive. We can be so overwhelmed by the complexity and the mess of the situation that we wait for the mess to arrive to us – e.g. for the person to miss a deadline, when it was clear a week or so in advance that it wouldn’t be met. Entering and extending towards what is coming, when it is obviously coming, means that we are being proactive and choosing what to attend to. Without breathing to allow our pre-frontal cortex to engage, however, and relaxing so that we have freedom of movement, the choice to extend and enter is impossible. The elements of breath and relaxation build together to create possibilities for new actions.
By paying attention to breath, posture, and relaxation combined with entering and extending, we move ourselves out of our historic patterns, as described earlier. Then we need to deal effectively with everyone pushing. All martial arts, to varying degrees, focus on using the energy of your opponent and the same principle is available in our randori today. Rather than pushing back or giving in, can we understand that beneath the requests/demands/pushing coming from others in this randori, that they are anxious, worried and concerned? Can we realise the value of empathy and have the presence of mind to enact it? Can we do this without losing our concerns? Can we see that in acknowledging and blending with those underlying concerns often the pushing disappears, and new possibilities for action emerge?
These are things we can do to move out of our historic conditioning and have the presence of mind to make clear choices and take leadership. They are not simple things to enact under pressure. It is vital to develop and sustain practices that enable reflection and awareness, and to have support when we are in the midst of own randoris.
It is noticeable that some organisations whilst espousing the need for reflective, non-heroic leadership in the good times, rushed to ‘command and control’, scrambling for emergency meetings, frantic action and heroic leadership when Covid-19 hit. This is a point where we need to realise that we’re in a randori, our conditioning is taking over, and we need to go back to practices that allow for more mindful responses.
If you do nothing else after reading this, then pause, breathe, relax where you hold tension, observe what’s coming towards you and make a choice about the next wise action you can take. That will help take care of yourself and those around you.
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Pete is a consultant, facilitator and coach with an international background in leadership and organisational development. He is interested in leadership and personal development, including the role that conflict plays in organisations and society.
Following a spell working in not-for-profit organisations, he started a dotcom during the...