18 April 2023

These are testing times. The business world is facing all kinds of crosswinds, many of which have no economic origin but are nonetheless potentially damaging. 

Strong leadership is essential for navigating any organisation through the storm, and we have previously discussed executive search challenges in this context. We also need to address the challenges that leaders face in maintaining their equilibrium — or, to put it another way, keeping their cool — in the face of all the uncertainty.

From a talent management perspective, it seems obvious that leaders have an enormous role in putting employees at ease, directing their efforts to positive ends, and engaging and motivating them when many may otherwise start feeling anxious, distracted, or cynical.

Here are eight personal sustainability areas that business leaders may want to develop for themselves in order to operate at their best and inspire their colleagues even when times are tough.


1. Take a long hard look at your fears.

What makes you anxious about the future? What’s the worst that can happen? What’s the probability of it happening?

What would you do if it did happen? How could you improve your chances of a positive outcome? If these questions sound familiar, you may have read Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living

The book is a helpful guide to analysing and solving problems, as well as a rich source of examples of how to develop greater psychological stamina. You’ll need it. The process of understanding and overcoming your fears can be emotionally and intellectually taxing. 

It also helps a lot to have a business coach alongside you for support. Maria Shishkova, the managing partner of AIMS International Bulgaria and the head of our Talent Management global practise, is also a Dale Carnegie-certified local training director and professional coach. She recalls working with a business leader who was about to take a big risk, abandoning the security of the familiar for an entirely new venture. 

“In one of our meetings, he told me how relieved he had been to discover that he could get by on about 2,000 leva per month, if necessary,” Maria says. “That’s about a thousand euros, a small fraction of his monthly salary at the time. This realisation helped him overcome a lot of the doubt and anxiety he felt. His next steps took him to a higher place than he had hoped.”


2. Maintain a calm, optimistic mindset. 

There’s a lot of pessimism in the air right now, with a lot of bleak predictions for the future. Consciously or not, leaders take that onboard. That isn’t sustainable if you want to inspire others and lead them and your business into the future. 

A conscious effort to embrace positivity can work wonders. It can transform all of the energy that fuels fear into hope, courage, and the determination to move on. “It may feel forced at first, but give it a go. It works!” laughs Maria.


3. Find strength in weakness.

A lot has been written about the necessary vulnerability of leaders, and rightly so. You may be a highly knowledgeable, bold, and astute decision-maker who does not give in to public hesitation or indecision. Still, you will never grow without an honest admission of your weaknesses — or the strengths of others. 

There’s an old trick some leaders use when meeting a new audience. They go all out to impress with their charisma, outward confidence, and aura of success, only to share, quite unexpectedly, some of the times they got it wrong. Together, these win over the audience. 

But the rewards of sharing are for everyone — the leader demonstrates their purely human side, builds trust, and opens up a supportive space for everyone to calmly and constructively share concerns, problems, and the lessons they have taken from failure. 

When we bring these to the surface, we can look at them closely together and find a way to overcome them or avoid repeating the past.


4. Inspire happiness in others

Our efforts to bring joy to our teams pay off many times over. Leaders often assume, incorrectly, that they only count if they involve a financial outlay. As a result, the joy ends up being rationed when you actually don’t need to do anything terribly extravagant. 

Start your meetings with good news, a cheerful story, and a joke. Share words of gratitude from a client or from another department. Praise someone for something that is often taken for granted. Invite people to share something good that has happened to them recently. Discuss plans for the coming holidays or a birthday party. Ask about an interesting book or movie. 

Even minor distractions like these can brighten the mood. “They’re like jets of fresh mountain air in the sometimes-stale atmosphere of the office,” says Maria.


5. Insert some quiet time in your day.

Always make time during the day to step away from your immediate business concerns. To begin, take a break from the manic stream of thought for a while and redirect your attention to something completely different: a hobby, reading, or perhaps deep listening to music. These are essential moments for recharging. 

Then, separately, give yourself time for “slow thinking” — deliberative, logical thought rather than instinctive, in-the-moment decision-making. It’s about the big picture. Where are we now? How did we get here? Is this the best path to follow? Where are there further opportunities for change and improvement? (See also: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.)

“Making time for quiet contemplation or temporarily picking up something unrelated to your day-to-day work can be very hard for people who are accustomed to constant action,” notes Maria. “But they should persevere. Uninterrupted action is like a child spinning in circles, faster and faster, until they grow dizzy and fall to the ground. Unlike the child, however, who usually bursts into a fit of laughter at that point, the grown-up business leader benefits nothing from the loss of balance and direction.”


6. Search for the deeper meaning.

AIMS International Bulgaria was once asked by a client to facilitate team building for a department that had just come through a period of great difficulty, including job cuts. 

“We weren’t too thrilled about it,” says Maria. “The uncertainty a lot of the team still felt, the raw emotions, and simmering politics — we feared such an exercise would be counterproductive at that time. So, we decided to take a slightly different approach.”

AIMS decided to organise the team building around a good cause. It chose a small town near Sofia — the capital of Bulgaria — and gave different teams within the client group tasks to help out there. One team painted the city library; another cleared the kindergarten gymnasium of the waste left behind from a recent renovation; a third refreshed the paint-marking hiking trails nearby; while a fourth taught locals how to use a computer. 

“One of those learners was a woman over 80, who showed such interest and sincere gratitude at being able to chat online with her grandchildren overseas now, and her joyful tears moved everyone there,” Maria recalls.

Trials can often help us understand why we do what we do. They give us direction, a sense of mission, and the strength to persevere. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl wrote that suffering ceases to be so the moment it becomes meaningful.


7. Seek out a fellow traveller. 

Find yourself a business coach or, at least, a mentor. Look for someone who shares similar values to yours and won’t hesitate to challenge you. Yes, following their line of questioning may be difficult, but the experience will force you to look deep within yourself, challenge your assumptions, and build confidence. 

The biggest benefit of difficult times for leaders is that they test our boundaries, and they frequently prove that we are capable of more than we expected.


8. Take a moderate dose of hedonism. 

In times of stress, the last thing most of us think about is the pursuit of short-term pleasure — what some might consider frivolity. But look at it this way: dedicating yourself to a hobby; spending time with people who charge us positively; losing ourselves in the pages of a book, film, or work of art — all these things temporarily divert our attention away from the problems that preoccupy us. They refuel us, restore equilibrium, reduce stress, and inspire creative thinking, allowing us to return to those problems afresh.

Hedonism, in moderate doses, contributes positively to a happy life, just as much as exercising self-control, according to the findings of a study on the effects of hedonism on humans recently published by the Universities of Zurich and Radboud.

“It’s like the secret spice of a remarkable dish,” says Maria. “Just a small quantity works wonders, but never forgo it entirely, else the food becomes dull and undistinctive.”

So, what are your plans for next weekend?


Want to learn more? Browse our Talent Management section HERE or schedule a personalised consultation with one of our Talent Management experts in your region. 

About the Author:

Maria Shishkova

Maria Shishkova, Global Board Services Practice Member AIMS International

Ms. Maria Shishkova is the Managing Partner of AIMS Human Capital Bulgaria and Dale Carnegie Training Bulgaria. She is a Dale Carnegie Certified Local Training Director and has been trained in specialised coaching courses at the Corporate Coach University of Dallas, USA and in a programme of Applied Economics at the University of Delaware, USA.