As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Haesler
Dan Haesler, author of The Act of Leadership (Wiley, $29.95), is a high-performance coach whose clients include elite athletes and Olympians, as well as corporate and educational leaders. As a sought-after speaker, he regularly presents alongside industry leaders, Olympians, the occasional Oscar winner and even His Holiness the Dalai Lama on topics of leadership, mindset, motivation and peak performance. Find out more at www.danhaesler.com.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I graduated from University as Teacher in 1999 and landed my first teaching job in Manchester, at one of the UK’s largest inner-city schools. Despite having a teaching qualification, I realised that my degree had done little to prepare me to work with many of the young people who were facing significant social disadvantage. And so began my informal education into mindset, resilience, wellbeing and motivation.
I moved to Australia in 2002 and found myself working at the other end of the educational spectrum, in a small independent school in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. However, what I discovered in my time at that school is that all young people are dealing with ‘stuff’; it just manifests differently.
In 2010, I was awarded a Government Scholarship to raise awareness and address depression in education. This allowed me to work with some of the world’s leading thinkers in this space and develop approaches and tools that schools could use. I was also invited to speak at national education events and write for various publications on topics of education, wellbeing and motivation. This exposure led to many different organisations enquiring as to how I might work with them.
I left my teaching role at the end of 2012 — not because I wanted to leave teaching — but because other opportunities were too exciting for me to ignore. I set about creating what I do now, which is — along with my wife and small team at Cut Through Coaching, work with people to help them and those around them to thrive.
Today, I work with elite athletes, teams as well as corporate and educational leaders around of issues of leadership, engagement, mindset and performance.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It wasn’t particularly funny at the time, but after giving one of my very first keynote addresses to an audience of around 500 I was making my way back to the airport via the train. Some people from the conference were on board the train and keen to chat to me and we got so involved in the conversation that I missed my stop and only realized nearly an hour later that I was miles away from the airport. What did I learn from that? I learned to be more mindful of where I am, which when (prior to the pandemic) you’re at the airport 2–3 times a week is very important!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Without trying to sound cheesy, I would have to say my wife. She backed me when I decided to leave my full time and very comfortable teaching job back at the end of 2012. Since then we’ve experienced all the highs and lows of running a business together!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Pure and simple it was to help people thrive. Our company’s values and behaviours revolve around this core tenet to this day. We see that our work impacts the people we work with — on an individual and collective level whilst also giving us a platform to support significant societal causes. We use our skills & talents to do work we love that helps people to be their best, professional and personally.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The past 18 months or so have been pretty challenging for obvious reasons. One of the biggest challenges I set myself was to ensure that we would retain all our team members. We were able to shift quite quickly from face-to-face workshops and coaching to online work with individuals, small teams and even large conference events. I think that this was partly due to my framing the beginning of the pandemic as a learning opportunity for us, and not to downplay the awful human cost of Coronavirus, but in Australia we haven’t experienced it in the same way as the rest of the world, and so it really was about finding new ways that we could continue with our work of helping people to thrive.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No. The motivation to continue comes from an intrinsic drive to keep learning and improving as well as the impact our clients experience as a result of working with us.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To provide clarity when it’s unclear, direction when people feel lost and support when team members need it.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Leaders should focus their effort on four key elements. Firstly they should work hard to ensure that the team remain connected, particularly if they are now working remotely. A sense of belonging is critical for people to engage and remain motivated. Secondly, leaders should continue to articulate the core vision and purpose, whilst encouraging their team to come up with new ways of working towards that common goal. The permission for team members to find new ways speaks to the third critical element which is nurturing team members’ autonomy. During the pandemic much of our volition and agency has been stripped due to various restrictions, so by creating the space for the team to be autonomous not only benefits your company, but more importantly their wellbeing and engagement. And finally, leaders should ensure that during uncertain times, the primary mindset is one of learning and adapting, rather than judgement and survival. This might seem counterintuitive, but my experiences tell me the former ensures survival, whilst the latter typically stymies morale, motivation and ultimately one’s ability to emerge the other side of a challenging time.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
As soon as possible, as honestly as possible and with a real sense of empathy and human compassion. We make these conversations more difficult than they have to be because we tend to put them off, or ‘hope’ we won’t have to have them. Hope isn’t a strategy.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
By planning for unpredictability. Having contingencies has always been important, but now more than ever having multiple revenue streams and multiple avenues to deliver on your USP gives you more chance of managing the unpredictability. The landscape has changed — perhaps forever — and the leaders and teams who thrive will be the ones who approach the new working environment with curiosity and mental agility.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
View it as learning. This is hard to do, but approaching turbulent times with a mindset of learning and growth will help your people stay connected and calm. It’s important that leaders lead by example. It’s during these times that you really find out who the real leaders are. Anyone can lead when everything’s good.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The most common mistake I see is that companies just keep trying harder at the thing that is no longer serving them. I’m also concerned when I see companies placing a premium on profits rather than people. Aiming for short term gains in difficult times will lead to long term issues when you get the other side of the challenges because of loss of talent, knowledge and even reputation. Another mistake is made by companies who look to make a quick buck on the back of challenging times. Price gouging, or baseless health claims might seem clever in the moment, and even profitable, but long term, these companies will lose the trust of the consumer.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Tightening the focus around spending is an obvious area, but also leveraging the flexibility afforded us by remote work, or the reduction in face to face client time in order to develop new initiatives and prototypes is a more nuanced approach to sustaining growth and forging ahead. The companies that thrive the other side of challenging times will be the ones who stayed true to themselves, their people and the people they serve during challenging times.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Acknowledge the Challenge
The first step in handling any challenge is to acknowledge it. Attempting to play it down only serves to intensify our emotions. You may be feeling a sense of unease, anxiety or sadness. Or perhaps you’re experiencing frustration, anger or like you’re in a “mental fog.”
Any of these feelings are perfectly normal yet too many leaders end up feeling even worse because they berate themselves for feeling like this. They get angry at themselves for getting angry or get increasingly anxious about feeling anxious. So go easy on yourself and those around you. .
2. Tell a Different Story
Most psychologists agree it isn’t necessarily the situation that causes stress, sadness or anxiety but rather the story we tell ourselves about it.
I work with leaders to enhance their mindset, and it starts with the language we use when we’re talking about challenges, either to ourselves or other people.
Try to recognize when you’re using language that personalizes the situation and instead of thinking, “why me?” try, “Why not me?” or “It’s not just me.” And whilst the current situation might feel like it’s doing to continue indefinitely, it isn’t helpful to tell ourselves “This will never end,” or “It’ll be like this forever”, because just as common wisdom dictates, this too shall pass.
Try to ensure that negative experiences don’t permeate all areas of your life. If you suffer a setback at work, it doesn’t have to ruin your whole day. An argument with a colleague or a client doesn’t have to lead to an argument at home.
This is hard to do, but it becomes easier if you incorporate the next three ideas into your day-to-day.
3. Practice Gratitude
Ask yourself, “What three little things am I grateful for today?”
Right now it’s normal to focus on what we’ve lost — particularly if we’ve previously taken them for granted. However, it is important to focus on what we still have, for example, despite my family not knowing when we’ll get overseas to see the grandparents, at least we have video calling to keep in touch with them. It’s in times like this that you realize that the little things aren’t little.
4. Control the Controllables
The very best focus only on what they can control and this approach can help us all. Instead of focusing on today’s case numbers, and what you would do if you were running the country — why not put your time and energy into something you can control?
Why not invest in learning that would help you develop another skillset or area of your business that will ensure you’re well placed when things do get back to some sort of normality?
If you can’t think of anything else to focus on, start with your breath.
Practicing mindfulness can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety as it engages the body’s parasympathetic system to lower heart rate, blood pressure release of stress-related hormones such as cortisol. If you can do that, that you’ll be able to engage with the other tips mention here. If you’re not sure where to start, there are any number of apps you can download for free to your phone.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Pressure is a Privilege — Billie Jean King. Changing the narrative around pressure is critical if we are to be successful. Seeing pressure as something to strive for creates limitless opportunities for learning, growth and development. Whether it’s the ‘pressure’ of giving a keynote speech to 1000 people, or pitching to a new client, I always remind myself of the opportunities that present as a result of walking towards this pressure, rather than looking for an easier path.
How can our readers further follow your work?
My website is danhaesler.com and you can easily find me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. You might also like to have a read of my new book, The Act of Leadership.