Dr Menaca Pothalingam of Smile Leadership Academy

    We Spoke to Dr Menaca Pothalingam of Smile Leadership Academy on Being an Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

    As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Menaca Pothalingam, a multi-award-winning leadership coach, social entrepreneur, advocate for mental health and ambassador for women’s empowerment. After 25 years in the Healthcare industry as a dentist and a practice owner, she moved into the world of coaching, using her personal and professional experience to support those working in healthcare.

    She trains professionals on how to increase their performance, productivity and profit. She’s a change catalyst educating others on how to prevent burnout and stress-related illnesses and reach their full potential. As a speaker, author and coach, she has created signature programmes and talks. She builds resilience and leadership skills, because she knows that true success and growth comes from focus on inner development not just on outer advancement.

    Menaca is lovingly described as “the next Oprah” of Asia, by others for her demonstrated resilience and her willingness and eagerness to continually learn and develop, combined with the urge to pay it forward. She wants to leave a legacy of leaving anyone who crosses her path in a better shape than she found them in.

    Menaca has overcome adversity including escaping the Sri Lankan Civil War, battling stress-related illness and succeeding as a two-time-migrant Asian woman in business alongside being a single mother. With qualifications in NLP, hypnosis, coaching, leadership and education, Menaca is helping others to take control of their lives, break free from victim mentality and turn their dreams into reality.

    Her vision is to create training centres throughout Asia for women, to provide hope and the opportunity to make their dreams a reality along with building a hospital with a holistic approach in her hometown in Sri Lanka through apportioning a percentage of every course and programme she delivers.

    She believes the best way to lead is to know ‘everything begins with you’.

    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?

    Everything you now see as milestones in my life, followed turbulence and adversities. My experiences during the war in Sri Lanka and migrating twice taught me how to embrace change and integrate with different communities. Overcoming linguistic barriers enabled me to believe anything is possible regardless of age. Overcoming stress-related illness taught me personal wellbeing is as important as a professional performance. Every experience I saw as adversities has brought growth in different dimensions and have made me a more empathetic, compassionate and humble human being.

    The fact is hitting the lowest points in life, feeling lost and being lonely have been the key to my transformation. I’m thankful to people who supported me through tough times giving hope and encouraged me to grow. But, I am even more grateful for those who disappointed, discouraged and disapproved me. They gave me the driving force to make progress and shape my life into who I am today.

    You should believe every situation presents you with an opportunity.

    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?

    When I started, my understanding of the leadership was to tell my team what to do and micromanage. I had no clue about delegation or creating a collaborative team.

    I thought it was easier to do it all myself, worse; I assumed if it had to be done well, I had to do it myself. For the first few months, everything was going well. One day I couldn’t be at work due to ill health, and we had to send in an important document. We missed the deadline as the team were not prepared for it, and they couldn’t complete the task. Each member said they have never done that or they were not confident to do that. It costed us financially and taught me a valuable lesson.

    Many leaders fall into the trap like myself thinking they have to micromanage everything and the only way to success is by doing it themselves. However, I learnt the hard way; this is not true.

    The lesson I learnt is, for a team to perform at their best, be collaborative and productive; it is essential to identify each member’s potential and delegate tasks accordingly. It is equally important to encourage the team members to be independent and contribute in decision making, along with completing tasks. As a leader, our main aim should be to enhance every individual’s personal development along with the growth of the business.

    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?

    I’m a small-town girl who was extremely fortunate to be guided and supported by very generous mentors and coaches.

    As a child, my grandmother and my mentors taught me to be inclusive and humble, which helped when I had to adapt to change a few times rapidly.

    In dentistry, Dr. Russ Ladwa, the current president of the British Dental Association, UK, had provided guidance and support from the time I was sitting for exams eighteen years ago to today through some testing times. He went beyond his role as a tutor to accommodate me in the lectures and pointed me in the right directions to get very useful resources.

    Russ has always been helpful, non-judgmental and would always start the conversation asking “Can I help you in any way?”. He has continuously encouraged me through challenges to grow. I remember when I was trying to prepare for my exams while I was almost eight months pregnant, he would always check with me if I needed any help and I have been lucky to have him as a mentor.

    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?

    The purpose of my business is to train healthcare professionals to perform at their full potential, be productive and attain professional success while maintaining personal wellbeing so that they can continue to provide the best care they possibly can. The training is to help healthcare professionals like me to be successful by building resilience, learning to communicate with compassion and demonstrate empathy to themselves and others. I aim to make leaders understand success starts from within, and personal wellbeing is as essential as professional performance to sustain the quality of care they strive to provide. Hence the training offers strategies and skills to achieve professional success along with tips and tools for personal growth.

    In an environment, where change is a constant denominator, the pressure to succeed triggers burnout and psychological challenges. As someone who had recovered from stress-related illness, I understand the difficulties you face very well. Fortunately, you can also learn the skills, tools and strategies to sustain success along with self-care like me. I’m passionate about preventing burnout and stress-related illness amongst professionals and organizations.

    It is pivotal to focus on the personal development of every team member, along with professional skills and knowledge. It is vital to train the team to be self-aware, have self-acceptance and create a self-care routine. By continuously developing their skills, knowledge and surrounding themselves with positive people, they will become more confident, productive and fulfilled. Continuous training will lead to high performance, reduce absenteeism and create a climate where creativity and invention will flourish.

    As challenges are unavoidable, as leaders, it is essential to train yourself and the team how to overcome setbacks and thrive under pressure, which will become an asset.

    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 challenging times?

    Every leader will experience adversity at some point. Resilience, creativity and adaptability along with effective communication skills and empathy are essential tools for sustainability and progress.

    You need to demonstrate empathy, genuine interest and be transparent with your team. It would be best if you communicated clearly the need to change and collective benefit of implementing. Application of emotional intelligence to listen, learn and consider the opinion of everyone is essential.

    During the war, collaborative thinking and effective communication helped us stay alive while walking through the jungle to be safe in punishing circumstances. We needed to see the bigger picture and needed to work together, valuing everyone’s opinion to make progress. Adaptability and empathy were the cornerstones of our survival. We had to utilize various skills and resources to keep us motivated.

    When dentists and some other professionals approached me in distress during Covid-19, I wanted to help them overcome stress and anxiety to become more resilient and productive through Covid-19 as an expert. I could relate to the anxiety people face as someone who has experiences being fearful, having restrictions of free movement and witnessing death and loss. Due to my involvement in voluntary organizations, I was aware of the difficulties people are experiencing.

    I needed to be creative, focus on problem-solving and assess the situation strategically during Covid-19. My personal and professional experiences taught me to have open communication with the team as a unit, manage fear and be empathetic. Our competent, creative and courageous team were willing to adapt and implement change consistently. We launched our online group coaching having clients from three countries and an online talk show ‘Soul Strings’, to bring social awareness about different social problems like mental health, domestic abuse and other vital topics.

    Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

    There were times I’ve thought of packing it in. One such time I had considered giving up was when I struggled with a stress-related illness and had experienced some lowest points personally and professionally. Having a supportive family and encouragement from friends helped me recover from my setbacks.

    My dream of creating training centers and building a holistic hospital has kept me motivated through adversities. Sharing my vision with a few likeminded people, coaches and mentors has kept me accountable. In our regular meetings they remind me of my vision when I go through challenges. I would encourage every leader to take time to understand what their core purpose is and share it with people they trust. This knowledge has proved to be of immense help to me during challenging times.

    Looking back on my journey to see how far I have travelled from where I started, gives me hope and courage to continue. Oprah Winfrey is my inspiration, and when I am having a challenge, I reflect on how she has survived and flourished through very challenging situations. Reading books and listening to podcasts of other thought leaders helps me to be inspired and remain motivated.

    As a young child witnessing loss, heartache and suffering, I understood how transient life could be. I often ask myself how I would want others to remember me when my life comes to an end. I once wrote an article titled ‘What would your eulogy say about you?’. As Maya Angelou says “the only thing people remember is how you make them feel”.

    I surround myself with people who have a bigger purpose. We have created a community where we listen, support and encourage each other to grow. Our community keeps inspiring and motivating each other through challenging times.

    The go-to quote for me during challenges I see as all-consuming is “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty” by Maya Angelou.

    Writing this quote down in my journals and my phone helps me to see challenging situations as a transient phase, part of the process rather than the final outcome.

    What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

    My personal experience as a leader and a business owner, has taught me that every leader will experience adversity at some point. In my view, resilience is the most critical tool for every leader to possess.

    Test of effective leadership lies in how you can guide your company through testing times. Adversities often shape us, help us to smoothen out our rough edges, making us more resilient.

    Resilience is the most critical tool and the steps mentioned below could equip leaders and team members with the necessary skills.

    Acknowledge and Accept: Come to terms with the veracity of your position and that you have knowingly or unknowingly been part of the system of failure. Refrain from complaining about the situation or people, as complaining will demoralize people around you. You could use that energy to focus on how to turn around the situation.

    Analyze and Assess: Evaluate the current situation objectively to understand the extent of the setback. Comprehensively analyze the situation by exposing the underlying problems, by scrutinizing with a fine-tooth comb to identify the causes which led you to this situation.

    Attitude: Positive mindset is equally crucial as strategic planning. as quoted by Maya Angelou, “Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it.” If you believe you will emerge from the difficult circumstances, you find yourself in and succeed you will.

    Adapt and Apply: Take control of the situation and do a course correction in the right direction. Use the lessons learnt, which would be valuable in your path to success.

    Acquire and Act: ensure you obtain the necessary skillset, knowledge and any assistance needed to get the results. Be intentional in the actions you take and be realistic about the outcomes.

    Ask and Accede: You will be surprised, once you seek help many generous people are willing to lend a helping hand and resources available. All you need to do is look for resources and ask for help. Understand there are limitations and areas of improvement for everyone. No one knows everything nor have the skills to deal with every situation.

    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?

    Leadership today demands you to forestall challenges, be proactive rather than reactive to change and shape the future. The most important thing to remember is every trial and tribulation passes with time and long-term outcome will solely depend on the way how artfully and skillfully the situation is managed.

    With changes, a leader has both challenges and opportunities on the horizon. You could harness this change, seize opportunities to contribute in a positive way to your community and beyond.

    As a leader, you need to maintain high morale as much as your team. You could achieve it by listening to podcasts, reading articles, biographies of successful leaders and working with coaches like I do.

    Leadership in uncertain times can be effective by creating a positive ecosystem by engaging, inspiring, motivating, supporting and developing others to fulfil a purpose. It is important to communicate that navigating through these challenges by adapting to change will help the organization contribute to a better future collectively.

    Leadership today is more about collaborative thinking and cohesive functionalities, rather than designing strategies and decision making alone. It is about encouraging individuals to form goals aligned with the common purpose which form the axis to an organization. Create a community at every level inside the organization where collaboration internally and externally is the norm to coexist and co-create success to all.

    Cultivate the culture of interdependence and community spirit to encourage interconnectivity at every level as a whole. Understanding the collective benefit of implementing new processes must be communicated to maintain cooperation. Constant communication where you listen, learn and consider the opinion of everyone is essential to be able to understand their challenges.

    What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

    Change is inevitable ranging from a natural disaster, pandemic to a recession. As a leader, you inevitably will have to share difficult news from performance issues, organization restructuring to revealing about a setback in the organization.

    The way you communicate, will have an effect on the attitude of the recipient about the message, success of leadership, morale of the team and the overall sustainability of the organization. Even though the consequence could vary depending on the situation, there is always a domino effect.

    Be precise and transparent:

    It is essential to share the news accurately without distorting it in any way. Often under pressure, there is a temptation to underplay the magnitude of the problem or its consequences.

    Good leaders know the benefit of being transparent about the challenges and how it will help them deal with the situation better. The sooner the problem is addressed and shared, you will have better chances to deal with the situation collaboratively.

    Be objective while maintaining confidentiality:

    One should ensure, personal opinions and prejudices do not influence the message conveyed to the team. As a leader, it is vital to present the facts without any bias, to enhance the possibility of problem solving from an objective standpoint.

    Finally, it’s imperative to maintain confidentiality where necessary.

    Be responsible and stop the blame game:

    You gain more trust, respect and appreciation when you take responsibility for the situation instead of shifting blame irresponsibly. It is sometimes tough to take responsibility where the outcome is a result of unpredictable circumstances.

    Be open and receptive:

    It is equally important to pay attention to the opinion and suggestions of the team and stakeholders. When you listen carefully, you will realize there are many valid points raised, and some concerns are reasonable.

    Active listening and showing compassion are equally important while discussing difficult situations. By showing a willingness to listen and considering their feedback carefully, they are more likely to be more understanding.

    Be prepared with a plan of action:

    Have a comprehensive plan of action to be followed, and explain it well. Take time to clarify any doubts. In particular difficult information often causes uncertainty and an action plan is necessary to demonstrate the capacity of the leader to manage the situation.

    Be sure to deliver what you promise:

    Follow through your plan and take action, periodically review and ensure the organization and you can prepare the team to deal with similar situations in the future.

    How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

    We now lead organizations in a very unpredictable environment. There have been many studies which illustrate the same. You will need to make plans in environments which are volatile, unstable, complex, and ambiguous. Agility and adaptability, along with contingency management, will become the essential skills to possess while planning for an unpredictable future.

    It is essential to prepare and equip the team with the necessary knowledge and skillset for adaptability. A good leader understands the importance of building collaborations with stakeholders and will integrate interpersonal relationships and team cohesiveness in the organization as part of the strategy. Successful leaders design realistic long-term plans while setting expectations with a comprehensive rationalization for the need to change from time to time, particularly during times of uncertainty. Such planning helps with the readiness of the organization to switch plans and processes at short notice.

    My learning has been, to lead during these periods is to have a long-term strategic plan which sets the overall direction to the leader, organization and the team. However, we need to be able to adapt our short-term strategy, processes and actions to suit the current environment. Having good insight, comprehensive assessment and holistic observation of the organization will help with strategic planning. Short term forecasting also helps with realistic prediction of available resources, possible risks and any personnel or skill gaps to be considered and filled.

    During a turbulent time, it is impossible and even dangerous to stick to long term plans and decisions made in the past rigidly. A leader will be forced to change direction during unpredicted circumstances and the time frame for preparation and planning shrinks considerably with the degree and rate of change in the environment. It’s often necessary to change course and improvise on processes focusing on short term plans, with the readiness to adapt continually.

    A leader needs to demonstrate the willingness and readiness to change, inspire and motivate others in the organization to be agile for alteration in direction. It is the leader’s responsibility to have an open and honest communication regarding the need to have short term plans, setting expectations from the team members and stakeholders.

    Although preparedness, confidence and optimism are desirable skills to possess, a leader needs to be able to ask for help readily when necessary. This attitude will convey the urgency of the situation, improve trust and it will also encourage positive contributions from team members. When the external environment mandates essential changes required in a concise window for preparation, the cohesive team will be able to evaluate, be creative and drive growth together with positive outcomes.

    Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

    Many organizations will have to pass through rough seas at some point as the business ebbs and flows. “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” says a famous African proverb. The saying is most applicable to a leader who guides the organization through these different phases.

    Organizations need to understand that being a captain itself doesn’t necessarily make you a leader. It is the captain’s capability to steer the ship through rough seas, learning the art of navigation, maintaining the morale of the crew, and providing a clear route to the end destination is what makes him a leader.

    Metaphorically the captain of the ship needs to be visible and require a reliable anchor to steer through the storm artfully. A shared purpose is the most reliable anchor a leader could utilize to ensure sustainability through rough waves.

    When there is clarity about the vision, it helps the leader to set the direction for the organization to be solution-focused. Shared purpose and values are the anchors that can help team members focus better on things which can be controlled during turbulent times.

    There is evidence that leaders who frequently communicate with their team are more likely to be seen as good leaders by the team as they offer reassurance. It is also essential to be transparent about their knowledge or lack of about the situation as it’s necessary to build trust during a challenge.

    On a final note, every business may pass through stormy weather. It is the leader’s responsibility to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the crew while ensuring the ship reaches its destination.

    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?

    Absence of leaders: Sometimes trying to face and solve the problems themselves, leaders are not interacting with the team. When we face adversity, we could feel overwhelmed and tend to bury our head in the sand like an ostrich. However, this is the time your team is looking for additional support and guidance.

    As a leader, it is essential to show up and share the perspective of the situation to the team. The presence of the leader will often build trust and reliability during times of uncertainty and turbulence.

    An effective leader should be transparent in cautioning and preparing the team at the earliest. They plan for challenges ahead and have a contingency plan to fall back in times of turbulence. It is imperative to be visible for your team and guide them on how to navigate through this period.

    Loss of communication and assurance: With high demands placed on the leader through adversity, it might be tempting to focus on problem-solving rather than taking time out to communicate with the team. Team members will be anxious due to their personal situations from health, financial risks and even job loss.

    The leader should explain the team members regarding the need to adapt comprehensively and relevant individual and collective benefits to the team and the organization to increase participation. Continuously measuring the engagement will help leaders manage how to drive the organization through adversities strategically.

    Focusing on problem and things which are outside zone of control: Sometimes we spend so much time and effort on something which is beyond our control and past events we are unable to focus on things in hand which we can change.

    A good leader will explain all the problems, involve the team, be open for ideas and suggestions and then brainstorm all the different possibilities and solutions. It is essential to inspire the workforce to be creative in finding solutions.

    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?

    Austrian psychiatrist, neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl had this to say:

    When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

    Awareness: The first step to overcoming any challenge is to bring attention to the problem, identify our coping mechanism and analyze if it’s helping or being detrimental to forging forward.

    Agility: Willingness to learn, change the way we function and practice new ways of working at the earliest opportunity is the secret of moving forward in the best way possible.

    Assess: Evaluating the current financial sustainability of the organization, halting the depletion of resources by reducing cost, renegotiating with service providers is essential early on.

    Even a tough decision to reduce or restructure the workforce may be necessary. It is vital to have a transparent and fair process in place to minimize low morale at the workplace. It is vital to provide as much as a notice to the staff and help them in any way possible with a smooth transition.

    Adaptability: Being adaptable will equip one to change the old processes to suit the present need. Exploring new opportunities will also present new avenues of income.

    During the current situation, it became apparent very early on that meeting clients in person and conducting face to face events are impossible. The revenue generated was declining rapidly, which was a common problem for many.

    Healthcare professionals had reached out to help them navigate through the difficulty. People reaching out to me and working with charities brought awareness of the issues many faced during this time.

    This awareness became the incentive to analyze the situation in a comprehensive manner. As a leader, I had to take a calculated risk to explore new possibilities quickly, and brainstorm new opportunities with the team.

    We had to shift from face to face workshops to online training quickly. It was a steep learning curve to adapt to the virtual training, in particular working with people from different continents at the same time.

    However, being adaptable and willing to move forward quickly has not only helped to sustain the business, but it has also allowed me to take the first steps towards my long-term vision of creating training centers in Asia.

    Launching the talk show ‘Soul Strings’ during the COVID-19 has brought guests from 28 countries so far, and we have now started to do online training as a social enterprise.

    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.

    Empathy, communication, resilience, creativity, adaptability and collaborative thinking are essential tools for any leader to have sustainability and progress. Team cohesiveness helps to work through challenges.


    Understand and respect everyone’s model of the world is unique and different.

    When you treat your team as your community with compassion, encouraging and guiding them with love and respect, the morale and motivation improves.

    A leader needs to demonstrate empathy, as each person’s socioeconomic circumstances might vary considerably. Taking the time and effort to understand the impact on them individually and collectively with genuine interest will build camaraderie and a sense of belonging.

    Leaders need to practice the same level of compassion and understanding towards themselves too. I find leaders are often overly critical about themselves and feel guilt and shame when faced with challenges. During these times it is more essential to show self-compassion, self-love and be nurturing our self-worth at difficult times.


    It is important to pay attention, understand and then respond to what the other person is saying. This style of communication give insight about the real roadblocks in the organization, revealing the areas of improvement and make the team members listened to and cared for. This. Empathetic, transparent communication improves the relationship between the leader and the team, build trust and allows you to motivate the team.


    Often, your team members come up with great ideas and suggestions. Please encourage them to be innovative and give them the freedom to implement those creative ideas.

    As one of my coaches would often say, “there is only one way to find out, it’s by doing”. My take on this is, either you will succeed, or you will learn something valuable. Great leaders always inspire their team to think outside the box and develop new ways of working.

    Collaborative thinking

    Leadership today is more about collaborative thinking and cohesive functionalities rather than designing strategies and decision making alone. It is about identifying and recruiting individuals who share common values with the organization.

    The best way is to understand the one vital ingredient is to partner with your team members and stakeholders is to progress together and achieve individual and common goals together as a unit.

    Cultivating the culture of interdependence and community spirit to encourage interconnectivity at every level as a whole will help you lead effectively during difficult times.


    Resilience is a skill which has to be part of every leader’s toolkit. Like other skills, the more tools you collect and more you practice how to apply, the better you get at it. Often the beliefs we hold and the way we respond will impact on the consequences.

    Every organization should invest in building a resilient team who can collectively support one another and work together through phases of change and unpredictability.

    Having practices from mindfulness to developing positive intelligence will help increase the mental toughness of the team individually & collectively.

    If there is one message I want you to take away is to understand everyone faces challenges and uncertainties, but the ones who seek answers and solutions will be able to sustain the organization. There is no miracle recipe or inborn gift; it is achieved with deliberate, systematic planning and taking actions with intention.

    Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

    We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty”- Maya Angelou.

    We often see successful people without either not knowing or sometimes not considering the hardships they had to go through. When I used to work as a dentist a few years ago, the practice manager used to call me the girl who was born with a silver spoon. I never spoke about my past, and people often made assumptions.

    In reality, I had grown up in a war-torn country, witnessed distress, death and danger, had to migrate twice and overcome my linguistic barrier as I didn’t study in English until I went to university. When I was struggling with a stress-related illness and going through a turbulent time, people often saw me as successful and happy. Partly, I was wearing my smile with a compulsive need to look composed, and somewhat people looked at what was easier to see superficially.

    The lesson I’ve learned from my own experience and others’ is not only to come to conclusions quickly about someone’s journey but also to be more empathetic, understanding and appreciative of what they have achieved.

    How can our readers further follow your work?

    Leadership Coach, SMILE Leadership Academy, UK

    Contact number: 020 3900 0567

    Email: [email protected]




    #1 Best-selling author of ‘Resilience Learned’