Since the arrival of the COVID pandemic and the  many ongoing crises − the Ukraine war, rising energy and food insecurity, increasing China tensions and the climate emergency − comparisons with wartime leadership will continue.

Crises put leadership under extreme pressure and the classic trap many leaders fall into is being in perpetual motion. They are always on and chasing a finishing line that is just out of reach.

I regularly see leaders caught in the ‘busy vortex’ instead of pausing to think strategically. Huffington Post’s Thrive Global wrote “we need good judgment from leaders in moments of crisis, not just stamina”. Pausing and looking inward to tap into their own creativity and better judgement is recommended and I would add a trusted network that gives support and constructive feedback.

Staying on by switching off

Huffington offers examples of wartime leaders including Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. I will offer, Angela Merkel, who more recently calmly tackled continuous crises.

Churchill is credited with using power naps believing he accomplished more and he scorned those who thought otherwise as lacking imagination. His US partner Franklin Roosevelt was heavily criticised for taking time out on a US naval ship, during the worst of the Battle of Britain. Here he developed the Lend Lease program that supported Britain. Both used pauses and rest to look inward for inspiration and critical judgement.

Over a decade, Angela Merkel dealt with the global financial crisis, the Eurocrisis, the first Ukraine war, the Syrian refugee crisis as well as entertaining times with leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. For me, that’s almost wartime leadership! She found peace with German classical music, of course, and a small circle of constant advisers − her trusted network.

Stillness is the secret

Marcus Aurelius’ self-reflections book Meditations has been a favourite of great political and military leaders for centuries. Considered one of the best Roman emperors, played by Richard Harris in the 2000 movie Gladiator, his 19 years had regular warfare and a 14-year plague that killed likely 10 per cent of his empire. Known as the philosopher king, along with following the stoic virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom, he found stillness not in a Roman villa but rather in his own well trained mind.

Sleep is a weapon

Remaining on wartime leaders, Admiral Jim Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander, refutes the myth that crisis leadership always means being on. In a Thrive article entitled Sleep Is a Weapon, he states “military leaders, to make the right decisions  −  ethical, moral and tactical −  must regard sleep as a weapon that enhances their performance. Rested commanders are the best commanders”.

Furthermore, the US Army training manual contains sections on “sleep, meditation, community service and spiritual readiness”. They define this as “qualities sustaining a person in times of stress …from religious, philosophical, or human values (building) character, decision making, and integrity”. No surprise Marcus Aurelius’ influence appears here with his book a regular companion of senior commanders.

Building organisational health – our culture

In uncertain times, leaders need to remind themselves we are all looking for certainty. For our organisational life, that means our culture where our collective values should live. Culture is being tested as our teams look for flexibility and are saying they are burnt out.

Deloiitte’s Women at Work 2022 report found “almost half of Australian women are feeling burnt out, 45 per cent say they have poor mental health, 32 per cent have taken leave…and many are experiencing exclusionary behaviours while working hybrid”. We still have some way to go in making flexibility and inclusivity come together.

Athletes know that always being on is very toxic as too much adrenaline is deadly. They cycle up and down their training and schedule rest periods based on their competition calendar. Footballers have set weekly routines which helps physical and mental health. Leaders and teams need cycles. Not every week needs to be full on and if it is, then that’s a slippery slope to a toxic workplace!

It only gets faster

Community expectations of companies and governments in times of uncertainty will only increase. Leaders will need to be very visible and vocal on the likely impacts of crises and what they are doing to support their teams and communities.  Being always on does not help anyone!

Leaders now have a great opportunity to build their inner selves, their inner resources for their own resilience and adaptability for the benefit of their organisations. 


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