We are all tired. It has been an emotionally heavy year, and we are all exhausted. The capacity for the next challenge to cross our path is extremely slim. Even though personally I had some really amazing things happen last year, each one of them was filled with its own challenges that stole some of the joy. Professionally, there were a number of challenges as well, and some left me wondering if I was any good at this leadership thing after all.

See, I’ve read all the books. Attended the conferences. Got the MBA. Subscribed to HBR. All of it. And in the midst of the pandemic, civil unrest and a world turned upside down, what was I left with? How was I going to lead myself, never mind my team, through even one more day? Was I a fraud? By the time December rolled around I was in a pretty dark place. Blessedly, it ended with a really good break that allowed me to catch my breath and gain just a little perspective.

I won’t claim to have all the answers to those questions. The rest and perspective mostly gave me the drive to want to write about leading in challenging times so that I would be forced to do some research on it. (I do joke that accountability is my love language after all. I am a master at tricking myself into doing the things that are good for me.) Here are some of the things I’ve learned about leading yourself and your teams through hard times.

5 tips for leading yourself
That airplane analogy about putting your own oxygen mask first before assisting others has become cliché, but there is truth in it. You can’t lead your team well if you are not leading yourself well. Or, maybe you can for a little while, but not for a long-term crisis situation like the one we’ve all been living in for the last year.

  1. Be real – or as real as you can be within reason.
    I think it’s important for our teams to know they aren’t working for robots. We all connect more to people when they are vulnerable. (Lookin’ at you Brené Brown!) Think about any speaker you’ve listened to that transitioned from teaching to sharing. When a speaker is vulnerable, our ears perk up; we turn our attention back to themr and stop thinking about our to do list. As humans, we are conditioned to connect, and that means sharing the good with the bad. It’s OK to share your challenges with your team. It makes you human, and they will relate to that. Being real with your team in the face of uncertainty makes you more trustworthy, as there is no way that any leader can know it all now. (For more along these lines, check out this article from Wharton.) Now good boundaries are still important here, so let’s not put your team in the role of counselors. Be as open as possible – and as appropriate – and that will foster greater connection.
  2. Create good boundaries.
    Speaking of boundaries… in an environment when many of us are working from home without the built-in transition of a morning and evening commute, boundaries are more important than ever. Find ways to walk away and not have your workday bleed into your personal life, even if the four walls surrounding you stay the same. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was working at the dining room table, and my husband would have to eat lunch at “my desk” every day. After a few months, and despite being in a small house, I found a new working space to have better boundaries. Additionally, within your work life, being clear about what you can and cannot take on is important. We are all living with far less capacity due to the ongoing pandemic, so it’s important to be clear with yourself and others in regard to what you have the bandwidth to take on.
  3. Go for a walk.
    In a time where we are spending an inordinate amount of our day inside in the same environment, getting outside is so important. I have a dog, so I have a built-in excuse to get outside for a walk a couple times a day. I have come to really cherish those outings as a time to get fresh air, a change of scenery, and a break from the constant Zoom calls and other meetings. Occasionally they find a way to follow me outside, but often I’m able to walk away for about 30 minutes in the afternoon, and it has truly helped my mental health. Whether I’m listening to a book or music, or just being present with all my senses in nature, the act of getting outside and walking has been so beneficial, even in these cold months.

    Sometimes stepping away from a project actually gives your brain time to process and come back more creative and fresher. I have a distinct memory of being in a long meeting with a colleague working through a thorny issue and needing to walk away for a minute (nature calls!) – even that brief pause gave me a thought that helped us break through a stall.

  4. Know your drains and fills.
    Years ago, I attended a leadership conference and heard Wayne Cordeiro speak about how to prevent burnout as a leader. I had just been through a particularly taxing season, so I was ready to hear all he had to say. It was a lesson so simple that it has stuck with me. He said that in life we need to know what drains us and fills us. He drew a picture of a bucket and said that when our bucket gets too low, we are on the brink of a nervous breakdown. In busy seasons, we are tempted to cut off the things that drain us, but it’s in those seasons when we need to instead focus on the things that fill us because the bucket may be draining at a faster pace. You can watch the video of that talk here.

    A couple examples might help. I’m an introvert so being in meetings all day talking to people is particularly draining for me. Things that I know fill my tank are listening to music, reading books and watching some brainless reality TV. Another thing I’ve realized lately is that monotony can also be draining; I’ve always been someone that gets bored easily. I’ve been trying to work into my weekly schedule some creative activities, like cooking a new recipe or writing another blog post.

    Please note, this should not be just a mental exercise. Make a list of the things that drain you and the things that fill you and bring you energy. Write it down. Share it with your spouse or trusted colleagues or friends. Hold each other accountable when you see more drains than fills. Then, you can support one another in getting time for your fills.

  5. Be grateful.
    Countless books and articles have been written about the importance of gratitude, so I won’t recreate that wheel here. When I am going through a particularly hard season, finding things for which to be grateful changes my mind and alleviates some of the stress. I so appreciated the variation on this theme earlier this year in a blog post from our board chair, Steve Polo, about celebrating small wins. Gratitude is free and easy, and it can change you for the better. It is also such a great example of self-leadership that you can model for your team. Want to level up as a leader? Find ways to express your gratitude for their performance during these challenging times.

4 tips for leading your team
Once you’ve got yourself in check, you can turn your attention to others. Here are four key things you can do to help your team through these challenging times.

  1. Set priorities.
    Clarity is so important for the teams you are leading. Being clear about priorities is a great way to help your teams set effective boundaries when they are dealing with less capacity. We recently had a crisis on one of my teams. In order for me to help the most impacted employee during this situation it was especially important for me to understand the scope of their workload and be clear about priorities. Then I was able to work with others in the organization who would be impacted by the things we de-prioritized, and the employee was able to manage a more realistic workload. I think there’s a sports analogy in there about blocking but I’m not a football (?) person so I’ll leave that to someone else.
  2. Pitch in to help where you can.
    Often times as a leader, you don’t know enough of the details to do the work that your team members do. However, when the workload is crushing and there are deadlines to meet, that is the time and place to roll up your sleeves and pitch in. Find a specific area where you have enough skills to help and have your team member train you in what needs to be done. Some employees are more willing to accept this help than others. With those who are more hesitant, we have an agreement that if they are working more than a certain number of extra hours per week, that’s when they will tap me in. I have done this several times over the years and have never regretted it. As this Forbes article states, “Working in the trenches with employees is a smart move for organizational leaders at any time, but even more so during challenging times.”
  3. Be empathetic.
    Empathy is always a good quality for leaders to have but it’s absolutely necessary during challenging times. If you are having to manage your own emotions and boundaries so closely, it only follows that others on your team are having to do the same thing. Showing empathy for people where they are can help you recognize the external factors your team is bringing to work – and how those things may be impacting their ability to focus and get what you need done.

    This Forbes article has some great tips on showing empathy to your team:

    a. Stay in touch with your team through one-on-ones using video conferencing.
    b. Ask questions to find out how they’re doing and what concerns they have.
    c. Empower people and give them responsibility so they are part of the solution.
    d. Avoid taking on other’s burdens. A leader that I admire talks of putting the book back on the shelf once you’ve heard someone’s story.
    e. Provide psychological safety so your team knows they are secure and can perform at their best.

  4. Have fun – at the right time and place.
    Finally, life has become so serious. The news is depressing. Chitchat and small talk before and after meetings and personal, hallway discussions have all but disappeared from our days. It’s important to build connection into your teams. After a particularly challenging December, before my team was breaking for the holiday, I did an online team meeting where we had some fun and got to know each other. It included activities like a scavenger hunt for meaningful items from our lives that we could show and tell. It was a great way to end the year on a positive note and lighten the mood.

Can I let you in on a little secret? I started writing this blog about six weeks ago. I had to put it down for so long because a new challenge popped up that needed my attention for that long. I guess writing about leading during challenging times might be like praying for patience – you get more opportunities to practice! But the truth is, these ideas held up for me. Give them a try!