Building resilience 4: Get your priorities straight

When work, emails, responsibilities, requests, deadlines pile in on top of us, the weight of it all can be hard to carry. And we all know what it feels like when that one extra straw comes in and the camel’s back starts creaking. 

Whatever role you’re in, wherever you are in the hierarchy, today’s highly-connected environment means the volume of incoming stuff can be overwhelming. We could all work 27 hours a day and still not get done everything that arrives with our name on it. 

In the face of this, it is absolutely vital that you have a strong sense of your priorities. In two different ways. 

First, you have to be clear on what work is really important and what is just busy-ness with your name on it. Think about things according to the Eisenhower matrix of urgent vs important matters. Make sure you’re spending enough time on the things that are important but less urgent. Make sure you’re working in your power zone, where your passions, market and expertise overlap. 

When you KNOW you’re doing work that matters, the stuff that it’s really important that YOU do, it is easier to worry less about the busy-work. When you have your priorities straight it’s easier to not sweat the small stuff. Because you know it’s the small stuff. 

Second, remember that the things which support your mental and physical health sit squarely in the important but not urgent corner of the Eisenhower matrix. 

When things get stressful it’s often easy to let those things slip, so you can put in the extra hours at the office to keep on getting stuff done. Every so often this is necessary. But if it becomes a pattern, pushing away the stuff that makes you you and keeps you sane, will only lead to you cracking under the pressure. 

However busy you are, however much stuff is going on, it is absolutely OK to commit to an hour of exercise a day. Or that 15 minute meditation period every lunchtime. Or the daily ritual of your kids dinner and bath time. 

Making this sort of self-care commitment does two things. It supports your wellbeing directly. And it forces you to keep on top of your other priorities. You find you’ll be saying to yourself… “I can only do two more things, because I have to read the kids a story… So I’ll do these two, because they’re the most important.”

Keeping on top of your priorities, taking proactive steps to build your mental wellbeing and turning your mindset away from victim-think towards responsibility is my three part prescription for building resilience. 

Click here for Part 5 of this series, where we’ll think about applying these ideas to your team as well as yourself. 

Building resilience 3: Manage your mental wellbeing

My left knee is bothering me. I think I overdid it in the football game this weekend. I’m going to back off at the gym for the next day or so, give it a chance to heal up.


I’ve got a really heavy head cold. Its gotten worse and worse. I’ve got that really important meeting at 10am, but after that I think I just need to go home and sleep. Or I’ll be useless for the rest of the week too.

We’re quite used to cutting ourselves some slack when it comes to our physical health. Injuries and ailments lead us to deliberately “rest and recover”. We also take steps to make ourselves fitter and stronger, knowing that sickness is going to come. 

In the third part of this short series on resilience I’m going to argue strongly that the same should apply for our mental health and capacity for handling complexity.

You can think of your physical and mental health as sitting on a sickness-wellness-fitness continuum. And where you are on this spectrum changes from day to day.

When you feel great, able to take on the world, leap tall buildings and handle the most intricate of political and emotional minefields, you’re sitting squarely in the fitness end of things.

When even small decisions take huge effort, you really don’t want to open your email and the just thought of a conversation is exhausting, you’re at the sickness end. 

In terms of your physical capability, you can think of “fitness” as a hedge against “sickness”. Eating right, sleeping well and exercising all move you into the fitness end of the continuum so that bad days move you down a bit into “wellness” (rather than from wellness down to sickness). The fitter you are the faster you recover from injury and illness and the more you are able to handle complex physical demands.

The exact same thinking applies to mental health and capability. When you’re feeling “well”, don’t settle for it. Do things to pro-actively move your mental state towards “fitness”. Whatever works for you. Time with a good book. That ten minute coffee by yourself to reflect on the day to come. Silly cat videos on the internet. Just make a point to build proactive mental health improvement time into your schedule.

When walking in the mountains with my Dad he would always tell me to put my gloves on BEFORE my hands got cold. 

Same thing. Get physically and mentally fit BEFORE you face adversity.

And also… Physical and mental wellbeing are powerfully linked to each another. Eating right, sleeping well and exercising all build mental fitness as well as physical fitness. Taking small steps to improve how you go about these three things will bring enormous benefits.

Now. When you have a day towards the sickness end of things, give yourself a break. Notice it. Accept it. Take steps to rest and recover mentally. Just the same as you would with the dodgy knee or the heavy cold. This doesn’t have to mean taking time off work. But on sickness days, do your least complicated tasks and deal with the simplest things on your plate. Save the tough stuff for when you’re better able to cope.

In terms of building resilience then, the message here is: be proactive about strengthening your mental wellbeing. You’ll be building emotional and psychological fitness, that will mean you’re better able to handle the complexity inherent in all leadership.

Click here for Part 4 of the series, where we’ll talk about priorities.

Building resilience 2: Move away from “victim” mindset

Stuff happens. All the time. 

When asked what would most likely blow his government off course, Prime Minister Harold MacMillan replied “Events, dear boy. Events.”

When you’re trying to lead (from wherever you are in your organisation) you will feel the winds of events more powerfully than those around you. 

You’ve planned your approach. You know you need this much time to get this really important thing done. And then… the key person on your team becomes unwell and is off for two weeks. Or your boss changes her mind and throws a curveball new priority into the mix that needs to be done right now. 

It would be really easy to throw up your hands and throw in the towel. Or at least say something like…

“Why does this always happen to me?”

But do you see the “victim-think”? It sounds like your success is governed by external things you can’t control and when they move against you, you’re bound to lose. 

Two things. 

First… This is completely utterly true. If your business is selling scampdoodles and the government suddenly bans scampdoodles… You’re in trouble. 

But. Second. You have a choice how you react to that situation. You can throw up your hands. Or you can get your head in the game and work out what to do next. 

I’ve talked about asking better questions before. Using John Miller’s QBQ idea to switch from “why does this always happen to me?” to “what am I going to DO about it?”

If you get into the habit of reframing situations in this way, you move away from seeing events as buffeting you unfairly, to seeing them as a normal part of the landscape you’re navigating. You move from seeing yourself as a victim of circumstance, to the realisation that you’re responsible for charting a course through the circumstance.

In other words, you’re taking big steps to building…

the capacity to recognise the majority of difficulties as normal, and the possession of a mindset and collection of approaches to handle complexity and challenge positively and pro-actively.

I think that’s a strong resilience mindset.

Click here for Part 3 of this series: Managing your mental wellbeing where I talk about a sickness-wellness-fitness continuum, judging where you are and modifying your approach accordingly.

Building resilience 1: Introduction

Do you like “Resilience” as a term? And recognise the need to “build resilience” in yourself and in your team? Some people don’t like the word…

The traditional definition is usually something like this:

Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.

The trouble is, this has a tendency to set us in a “victim” mindset. The implication is that work and life are full of setbacks and nastiness, that we need to be ready for. It primes our subconscious thinking that things will be tough. Thus making it more likely they will be.

So lets look at it another way.

Slightly reframed definition:

Resilience is the capacity to recognise the majority of difficulties as normal, and the possession of a mindset and collection of approaches to handle complexity and challenge positively and pro-actively.

So for me, in four parts:

1. Building resilience is about setting your mindset away from “victim” (by recognising that complexity and challenge are normal) and towards a “responsibility” to deploy best effort to sort things out as they arise.

2. Building resilience is about recognising where you are on a sickness-wellness-fitness continuum in terms of your underlying mental health, your physical wellbeing, and your capacity for engaging with complicated issues. And taking steps to move yourself towards, or keep yourself in, the “fitness” end of the spectrum.

3. Building resilience is about prioritising your efforts, ensuring you have time and space to handle trouble when it arises and that you make time for the things that make you you.

4. Building resilience in your team is about noticing where people are in terms of all of the above, supporting them while they think about themselves in these terms and providing whatever help you can as they implement strategies to improve.

I’m going to write about these things  in a short series of posts about resilience. 

Click here for Part 2 of this series: Moving away from a victim mindset. 

Where is your power zone?

In a conversation with a colleague last week, I touched on an idea from Jim Collins’ Good to Great. A brilliant book about what effective leadership really looks and feels like.

Collins talks about identifying your organisation’s “hedgehog concept” – the one thing that your business can be the best in the world at, which is defined by the intersection of three things. Your passions, your expertise and the driver of your economic engine.

I think this idea is really helpful for individuals too, in identifying where you can make the most impact. I just change the words just a little bit.


What are you passionate about? What do you love about your work?

Where does your expertise lie? What can you be REALLY good at?

What does the market want? Where “market” is defined by your role and might be no more complicated than “your employer” or “your organisation”, but could also be real stakeholders or customers. So… What is it about your unique skills, understanding and insight that is truly valuable to your “market”?

For me, the intersection of the answers to these questions is your Power Zone. It is where you can really make a difference, whatever your role.

We can sometimes let ourselves take on things that we’re passionate about and expert in, but that aren’t at the core of what our markets need. This can be good for the soul, but if we do it too much we are missing the chance to make a real tangible difference. And our bosses will wonder why they’re paying us for having our own fun at the expense of their priorities.

We all get drawn into doing things that the market wants and we are expert in, but if we’re not truly passionate about them we will struggle to sustain meaningful effort and eventually grow weary.

This way of thinking is really useful when you’re trying to develop vision and mission statements, for yourself or your team. And for helping set your priorities.

Lots of stuff in the “urgent but not important” quadrant in the Eisenhower Matrix is stuff that the market wants that you’re expert in.

If you can make time to pull yourself towards the power zone, by delegating the stuff that you’re less passionate about, you’ll enjoy your work more, and make more of an impact.

Avoid setting up an email for failure

I got an email last night, which started like this.

Dear all,
Firstly, let me apologise for this note, which is rather long and technical. You might want to fortify yourself with tea and biscuits before reading…

The email that followed was indeed long and technical. But it was also really useful and entirely appropriate. It was timely, in that it related to an issue discussed in a meeting earlier that day, it had exactly the right information, it was exactly the length it needed to be and was written in a tone that was friendly and informative. It was a great email.


By STARTING with an apology, and by pointing out some things that weren’t great about it, the author was “priming” his readers towards thinking the email would be boring/tedious/complicated/difficult.

He was setting their subconscious elephants off down a track that made it more likely they would hate the email. And thus not pay attention to its contents.

I get it. You don’t want to inflict stuff on your colleagues that they’re not really interested in and you want them to know that you know they’re not really interested in it. So you apologise before you’ve started.

In many ways this is just dialling up the humility a bit, which can be a useful thing to do sometimes. But not at the start of an email. Don’t do it.

All it does is weaken the power of your message and make it more likely that people will ignore what you’re saying.

You don’t have to go overboard. Don’t try to oversell the thing.

Just keep it factual and informative.

Dear all,
Following on from our discussion this afternoon, I wanted to share the key points of the policy we were talking about and direct you to relevant resources…

“Key points” says “short and to the point, it won’t take you long to read this.”

“Direct you to relevant resources” says “I want to help, you can find what you need by reading this email.”

These things prime the reader in the other direction. It steers the subconscious elephant to a path that says “This email will be useful to me. I should pay attention.”

First impressions count. In emails as well as in person. Don’t put yourself on the back foot before you’ve started.

Grab a copy of my FREE eBook – 6 Keys to Leadership to find out more about Confidence vs Humility and getting the balance right between them.

Coping with uncertainty

How long can you handle things being unclear?

Uncertainty and lack of clarity can be paralysing. “We have to wait until we know how [this thing] will turn out before deciding what to do and how to do it.”

Sometimes the leadership thing to do is cut through uncertainty, identify the key point, create clarity for the team and get things moving forward. 


Often… the thing to do… is wait. 

Live with the uncertainty. Hold the jaws of the situation open for a while. Help your colleagues cope with things being unclear.  

Because sometimes the situation just IS unclear and will remain so. 

Letting things play out, rather than rushing to an answer, can let the context emerge or settle, and opinions shift towards a consensus. Your own understanding and ideas will develop. Eventually the answer can just appear as an obvious truth. 

You have to choose. Decide quickly and get moving? Or live with the uncertainty and let the answers emerge?

Remembering you have this choice is a leadership skill in itself.