Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Fear in the Belly - 11 Leadership Hacks to Control It

"Without the darkness, how can you recognise the light" Tuvok 

(Star Trek Generations) 

Ever had one of those moments where you feel a little queasy and the queasiness is not related to what you ate, but what you experienced?

It's that little ball of fear that makes your tummy twist and recoil, almost in an attempt to run away and hide.  It is a visceral response, and because it is not your intellect that controls it, but something far more primitive and raw,  keeping it under control when you are facing 'those' situations (you know the ones, quite often they blindside us and proceed these dreaded little words 'have you got a minute') is no easy task. 

I know that feeling in the pit of my belly well - too well.  I suspect, if you are in leadership, especially educational leadership, you know it well too! 

This post is as much as a reminder to myself, as it is a way to support others.  

Leadership is mostly rewarding, fulfilling, and an opportunity to make a difference.  As with all bright moments, there are also some darker times, and the flip side to the great is that leadership can also be challenging, hard work, dark and unforgiving.  Some days, weeks and months are amazing and other times, not so much.  Sometimes you are faced with situations that bring about that uncomfortable feeling of fear in the pit of your belly, and the key to walking away mostly unscathed is in how you manage yourself and your reactions during the 'fear in the belly' moments. 

The following 11 suggestions/leadership hacks are by no means a definitive list, but they are things that can help, and things that I have been honing myself, over the years.  

1. Disconnect - take time out and leave work at work 

I know what you are thinking, "but I have ... (insert whatever seems important, files to file, Charters to write, data to analyse - the list is endless) to do..."  I have a revelation to share with you - disconnecting for a weekend - and I mean the WHOLE weekend, from when you leave on Friday and return on Monday, will NOT - I repeat - will NOT, make the world end.  You are of absolutely no use to anyone, family or colleagues, if you do not take some time for yourself.  You work hard - really hard.  You are the person that everyone wants a piece of, and quite frankly, if you do not keep some aside for you, you will falter and fall.  

2. Do what brings you joy 

This is related to number one.  (can you see a pattern emerging here?  Good) What makes you happy?  And for this, I mean both at work and at home.  For example, my batteries are recharged at work by going and working with, and talking with students.  They are why I went into this career - they are who I want to be great for, and they make my heart sing because they are such great role models of resilience and joy.  Getting unstuck from my office to spend time with our students is a highlight and no matter how much fear might be swirling around the pit of my belly, our students remind me of the WHY.  Every time.  To recharge my batteries at home, I love to walk on the beach - the beach is like a stress soother.  It doesn't even matter what the weathers like - there is just something very healing and powerful about the ocean.  It reminds me that the world is a wonderful, changing place to explore, and life is an adventure just waiting for me to go and seek it!    Those are just two examples - what are yours? 

3. Get your 'ducks' in a roll 

Make your lists, get your systems out and be organised.  When things are difficult, it could be all too easy to slip into a state of darkness, and let the organisation systems slip.  Don't fall for that!  When things seem out of control, getting back on top of the chaos is a priority and will help you feel more organised and in control.  Be systematic, think like a Start Trek Vulcan and allow logic and reason a chance to flourish.  You can read more about things to slow down the 'roller coaster' in my recent post 'The Leadership Rollercoaster'.  Suffice to say, getting your 'ducks' in a row is the equivalent of your own leadership security blanket.  

4. Blow off the steam 

Something I find very helpful in combating the fear in the belly moments is letting off some steam.  We all have a variety of ways to do this, but my two favourites are either a hard out gym session (the older I get the more these seem to nearly kill me) or a super loud 'pretend I am a rock star' session in my car on the way home.  When I say loud, I do indeed mean loud.  One of the things I like about my car is that it has a fantastic sound system.  I have a number of songs that I LOVE to sing loudly (most likely badly but thats not important) and there is something very cathartic about doing this.  I imagine I must look like a bit of a twit (and goodness knows how bad it sounds) but, that is a small price to pay for regaining my sanity.  I hope to put together a post with some of my favourite songs shortly.  Watch this space.  

5. Become intimate with your stress response

How well do you know yourself?  Do you understand the symptoms of the 'fear in the belly' moments?  There is a difference between situational sickness and actually being unwell.  Each of us 'feels' our emotions in our belly differently, and only you know what your response is.  Some people feel nauseated, others feel 'off colour', some feel tendrils of cold running through their veins and others might feel flu like symptoms.  Get to understand your own responses to stressful situations so that you can find which of these strategies (or others) might help you keep them under control. 

6. Know your triggers 

Do you know what makes you feel that 'fear in the belly'?  Similar to the one above, this is about understanding what causes it.  For example, one of mine is feeling out of control.  By that, I mean encountering one of 'those' moments that I have never encountered before because often fear has at its core, the notion that 'I don't know what to do'.  Unfortunately, or perhaps from a growth mindset point of view, fortunately, the Universe has provided me with numerous such encounters which has given me a system to help bring some control to it.  Part of my 'system' is to do some of these very hacks.  I always start with trying to bring some perspective and control back to the situation by asking myself, who can help, what steps need to be taken, who needs to be informed, where does it fit into our policies, and what have I missed?  I wrote above about getting your 'duck's' in a row and being organised - tapping into the logical and analytical part of your brain helps to bring some perspective and calm to the situation, giving you a chance to take some control.  My brain doesn't function well when it is stuck in flight or fight mode, and having a system to calm it down helps.  

7. Debrief - you are not alone!

This is a big one. Who do you go to debrief?  Who is your confidante and 'wise shoulders'?  I am fortunate in that there are a few people I trust to discuss 'hairy' things with.  Knowing who to go to to get the correct advice (such as School Trustees Association) is also crucial. They know what you need to do, who you need to contact and what process you need to follow in order to ensure both natural justice and as a safeguard for yourself and your school.  I am in no doubt that the person I use is outstanding and without their help would have struggled.  Then there are the awesome people in your professional learning network (if you are one of mine, and I am sure you know who you are, know that I love you to the moon and back, am terribly grateful to have you and you are fabulous).  Know who your people - your tribe - are.  They are literally your sanity savers! 

8. Practice Mindfulness and Gratitude

This one is hard when the going is tough.  Our brains seem to be predisposed to sinking into the doom and gloom, but if you can shake that old dark dog off your shoulders long enough to appreciate those things that do go well, the people in our life that make it all worthwhile and the small things that we can be grateful for, then it is helpful.  At a recent leadership group meeting, we went around the room and for some of us, the term has been a little tough, all we could find to be grateful for was that we made it to the meeting!  Whilst that might seem sad, actually, it is a huge testament to the knowledge that somedays, it is the small things that make the big difference, and on that particular day, just getting there meant the world to us.  So, being grateful might just be a list of the little things (my car got me to work in one piece, the coffee was hot, the breeze from the window is fresh, the little picture of New York on my journal makes me feel hopeful I will get there and motivates me to keep on going, etc).  I would suggest meditation as another useful tool, but that is not something I am particularly skilled at - yet.  (Keeping my brain silent for more than a moment is always a victory) 

9. Affirmations 

Bare with me, because I know this is going to seem naff, but if it really helps me!  Think growth mindset!  How you talk to yourself matters.  I know it's easy to fall into the 'I hate my job' mantras when a situation occurs, and because I have had moments where I have felt like this, or where I've lain in bed in the morning reluctant to get up because, for that moment, it's just too hard! (I may have burst into tears once or twice, much to the horror and concern of Technoman).  So, I combat this with a positive mantra or two (or fifty - some days are harder than others).  I've been doing this leadership job for over 15 years, and some of my experiences as a school principal would make your toes curl.  If my naff solution around affirmations to calm the fear, and soothe the turmoil in the tummy are of any use to anyone else, I can surely overcome my own insecurities to share them.  I've set my phone to send me a reminder in the morning, and again before bed, with a little private message that reminds me that I'm doing a good job, and that I'm enough.  In addition, I have an app on my phone that if my day has been particularly rough, I can press a button and read some positive, random affirmations.  If you're interested, the apps called 'Affirmations' and you can download it from iTunes and Amazon.  It's a resiliency tool that helps keep me feeling in perspective.  What I have found, is that rewiring my inner voice to say 'I love my job, I love my job' instead of 'I hate my job' just takes the edge off the dark moments by shinning a little light of positivity.  

10. Breathe!  No seriously, breathe! 

When I encounter the 'fear in my belly' I automatically work to calm my fear by breathing.  There are many many ways to do this, and I have now got it down pat (I think) in that I can take some deep breathes to collect my thoughts and most of the time, you would not even notice that I am doing it.  Google breathing exercises to get anxiety under control and have a go at practicing this for yourself.  Never underestimate the soothing way some good deep breathes in and out, help to bring perspective and allow you to take back some of the control on your emotions.  

11. Finally, remember 'she'll be right' 

By this I mean, a bad situation doesn't mean you are a bad leader, or that things won't get better.  It doesn't rain forever, right? So pull out your umbrella, face the rain with courage and strength and hold onto the faith that the sun is coming!  You have got this, you are quite capable of sorting your way through these situations, and remember, you are not alone!  

Please NB:  If things are overwhelming you, please seek help - see your GP or seek guidance from a support specialist (see below for kiwi links - if you are from another country, find your countries equivalent).  


  1. Awesome. I must find my copy of Breathing Works' Book! Isn't it amazing that a casual comment or hyperlink to an article can lead you to remembering that it isn't all that bad and that she'll be right in the end!

    1. PS Is it logical to think like a Vulcan?

      Live long and prosper. :D

    2. Of course - is there any other kind of logic?
      I think the breathing techniques can be a little under rated - apart from keeping us alive it is a good way to moderate the 'racing heart'.