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 Fiona Buckland, author of Thoughtful Leadership.
Fiona Buckland is a life and leadership coach and facilitator, who leads workshops on discovering your authentic leadership power, as well as Guardian Masterclasses in Tackling your Inner Critic. She is also on the faculty of The School of Life, and lectures in coaching at Birkbeck, University of London. Fiona has worked with clients including the Wall Street Journal, American Express, Alexander McQueen, and on many leadership development programs. She also worked as a curator, producer & speaker coach for TEDx.
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?
Like many coaches, I have a journey that lead me to where I am now. I started as an academic and was awarded a Fulbright and a teaching fellowship to do a Ph.D. in Performance Studies at New York University. On returning I joined Amazon as non-fiction books editor on their post-launch team. From there I worked as a sales and product manager at Penguin. I was invited to launch a new independent publishing house as Managing Director. After deciding I had experienced all the publishing jobs in which I was interested, I became Head of Learning at The School of Life, a global organization dedicated to developing emotional skills. Most recently, I switch career to life and leadership coaching and facilitation, bringing along all my experience. Nothing is ever wasted.
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?
I strongly believe we learn best by doing, but there’s quite a hurdle to get over first. The night before I first stood up in front of people to deliver a workshop on managing stress I couldn’t sleep a wink. My mind just kept going wild imagining I was going to be picked apart by people in the audience who had read absolutely every single research paper on stress. Here I was, the so-called ‘expert’ on stress, gripped by dreadful stress. Then, as the first light of dawn slid between my curtains, about 20 minutes before I needed to get up, I suddenly experienced a real insight that has never left me: I didn’t need to be brilliant, I just had to impart something that might be useful — and that that was up to each person there. I remind myself of that insight every day.
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?
It takes a village, so singling out one person seems counterintuitive. I will choose my first corporate boss, Nancy Olsen, who is sadly no longer with us. She was looking for an editorial assistant at the Library of Science bookclub. I had no background in science, no corporate experience, and I was from the UK. Yet she saw something in me, and her imagination, generosity, warmth, humanity, and excellence inspire me daily.
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?
My business purpose is to connect people to their wholeness so that they can connect with others and with their purpose in the world.
My vision is for a people-focused service supporting people with growth. The best leaders create leaders rather than followers. I want a future with thoughtful leaders, as the issues we face are too complex, and consequences of unthoughtful leadership too destructive to this and future generations of all living beings, and the planet itself.
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?
Although I don’t have a team, I work with individual and organizational clients, and during the pandemic, I reached out to over to facilitate sharing circles. We need to lean into difficult emotions, acknowledging them so we can move forward to the fork in the road. In this way we create resilience.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
The going can get rough. Perhaps the best aspect of growing old is having a sense of perspective. This too shall pass, I tell myself. I know from experience that when I am struggling, it is because something profound and creative is trying to emerge, and although it may feel hard, this is part of the process. At these times, I witness myself with self-compassion, being the wise leader to those parts of me suffering, reminding myself of my purpose. When I can do this, I find that my energy and drive springs back and often a shift takes place that leads me to higher and better things.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To model great leadership, that encourages shared, co-creative responsibility, rather than learned helplessness.
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?
Lean in. Meet people where they are and show you care. Acknowledge the difficulties and uncertainty. Do this regularly and in person if possible. Remind people of their values and strengths and the purpose they are together to actualize. Act with integrity. Never bullshit. Walk your talk. Trust is your primary source.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Ideally in person, with empathy, compassion and humility. Listen and receive, tune in, manage your stress reactions to be present with others. Don’t expect a quick resolution, commit to the process.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
By staying on the edge of the emerging future; never head down and eyes front; always responsive, rather than reactive. Make decisions and go forward iteratively and adapting.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Co-create the emerging future.
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?
- Ignorance — listen to what people are telling you. Pay attention to the changing situation. Don’t shut yourself off, go it alone or stick rigidly to a goal when the situation changes.
- Avoidance — lean into the emotional weather of people around you, whilst holding boundaries so you are not overwhelmed by them. See and accept things as they are, whilst keeping optimistic and balanced.
- Lack of transparency and humility. Tell people what you know if you can, admit what you don’t. Trust is your greatest power.
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?
Seeing opportunities and understanding how you might pivot. For instance, learning how to deliver virtual global workshops and coaching in a pandemic.
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 . Consciously lead yourself.
Imagine two rivers. One is the river of reality, and the other, the river of illusion (swirling with stories that our minds project onto ourselves, other people and the world). With practice, we can notice in which river we are immersed at any moment. Although swimming in the river of illusion is a very human tendency, it does have its dangers, which are amplified in leadership because of its wider and deeper impact. Thoughtful leaders bring self-awareness to the practice of leadership, integrating three steps: awareness, acceptance, and choice. Without awareness of our inner states and patterns, and the ability to choose self-leadership, we can react automatically, be carried away in the river of illusion, and so our impact is unconscious, and our ability to choose restricted. Without acceptance, we deny reality. Without awareness and acceptance, we don’t have conscious choice how to respond.
In an example of unthoughtful leadership, a client was a marketing director in a national campaigning organization. When I met her, she was ready to hand in her resignation, and she was not alone. Over seventy percent of the leadership team had quit in the previous year, and as a result, long-term planning was non-existent, and day-to-day operations chaotic. This anecdote goes some way to explaining why. The directors and their reports were in a workshop on communication skills. The CEO arrived late and highly agitated. She had just come from a meeting that had angered her, and, rather than noticing her state, and taking steps to calm herself, she proceeded to disrupt the session by throwing herself noisily into a chair, launching barbed comments that undermined the facilitator and participants. A more self-aware leader would notice her toxic stress level, and apply ways to self-regulate to prevent negative impact. This incident explains the campaign’s difficulties in retaining talent, motivating staff and reducing the amount of time off taken by staff for stress-related health issues.
We have more conscious choice over our inner state than we realize. But this doesn’t mean we don’t get triggered. At the end of every class, Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of the martial art of aikido, would step into the center of the dojo, and invite all his students to challenge him at once. His students marveled, ‘Master, how is it that you are never triggered by whatever comes at you?’ ‘Oh no,’ the master replied, ‘I get triggered all the time. But I regain my composure so quickly, you don’t even notice.’ If a master like Ueshiba experienced natural triggers, then it is unrealistic for us to aim for a plateau of consistent calm. Leaders experience random incoming demands and challenges all day, and feeling triggered is normal and understandable. We need to notice our state, accept it, and then choose to regain composure and a sense of mastery over ourselves.
2. Remind yourself of your values.
I once coached a politician who worked in an environment which brimmed with people with different educational backgrounds and career journeys than her own. When they debated the finer points of policy, she felt she didn’t know enough to stand next to or at times against them, and was afflicted by Imposter Syndrome. In the midst of a vital policy debate, when she felt she was losing influence, she reminded herself of her authentic values. She valued connection, justice and supporting and mentoring others, especially women in politics. She realized she needed to act from her own values, to be herself rather than worrying she wasn’t enough in comparison to others. Her anxiety decreased, her sense of her own power increased, and so did her leadership influence. Because of the role she played, her party increased the number of women candidates standing for election more than it had in its history.
3. Never let go of your rope.
Teacher and author Parker J. Parker tells a story of how, during long winters in Minnesota, farmers would tie a rope from the back door of their houses to the door of their barns, to which they held to prevent being lost. This rope is like your purpose. In the blizzard of leadership demands, you can easily lose your way, your sense of who you are and why you are doing what you are doing. Never let go of your rope. Thoughtful leaders know their purpose and never forget it. Doing so helps them focus on long-terms goals, rather than being swayed by instant gratification, and the temporary relief of anxiety or pressure. Leadership requires hard work and sacrifice. Without a purpose, it can feel pointless at times. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that ‘he who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how.’ Knowing why you want to lead gives you a deep well of energy to draw upon when things go well — and when they don’t. Purpose is something bigger than you that works through you, but you can smooth its passage by being conscious and aligned with it.
4. Acceptance and compassion.
I once led a leadership workshop with a group of senior healthcare managers. When I introduced the practice of acceptance and compassion, they bristled. ‘Isn’t that about being soft?’ The word swilled around the room like an unpleasant taste in the mouth, as if heresy to the doctrine of effective leadership. This resistance derives its energy from a misunderstanding of what acceptance and compassion are, and from the protective shield around some fears that leaders have about losing their edge and being overwhelmed by other people’s problems. But, as these managers discovered, withholding compassion from yourself and others reduces our capacity to connect and create, as the brain switches to survival mode, in effect, closing down expansive, perspective-holding and creative faculties.
Acceptance and compassion don’t prevent us from having boundaries, or holding ourselves and others responsible and accountable. Acceptance means acknowledging the reality of a situation, as it is in the here-and-now, and not resisting what you cannot or choose not to change. It doesn’t mean you agree or approve of it. Compassion is seeing the humanity in us all, believing we are all doing our best at any time, and wanting to address the causes of suffering. Without the ability to see things as they are and feel our shared humanity, we become armored, hardened and disconnected from ourselves and from people, the same people we want to inspire, engage and serve.
One of my clients found it beneficial, as she had developed the habit of helping her team by taking on their work. This is not compassion, it is breaking your own boundaries, and training people into learned helplessness. It felt like an easy fix in the short-term, but in the long-term it elevated her stress, and was no real support to her junior colleagues. After integrating compassion practice into her life, she understood their struggle without feeling irritated, and set aside time to coach them, developing their potential. Her team flourished and her stress — and unnecessary workload — decreased. So much for a ‘soft’ skill.
5. Understand the power of your unconscious impact.
When you become a leader, you step into the spotlight and intend to bring all your finest qualities into the light with you. Yet, there are unconscious qualities and energies you also carry in, which may profoundly affect your leadership. The mind comes with a built-in mechanism to protect the ego with favorable images of ourselves, which screen our messy tendencies and feelings of pain and shame. We are not perfect. We all have vulnerabilities and insecurities. That powerful defense mechanism works furiously to deny the truth to ourselves. What it hides is our shadow. Poor leaders recreate their own ego-defenses in their choice of people surrounding themselves: yes-people who shore up their own shiny self-image. They don’t like someone holding up a mirror that reflects back that which they cannot bear to see about themselves. They become intolerant of dissent, and people hold back from offering it. Unable to own their own less-desirable tendencies, they project them onto others, for instance, believing others to be untrustworthy, when they themselves are insincere. They fear the truth being revealed and are brittle. The fragile truce between what they want to believe about themselves, and the more complicated human reality creates a fault line in their leadership.
True self-acceptance is acceptance of ourselves at our least acceptable. That includes accepting, rather than rejecting or denying, our shadows: those ‘unacceptable’ parts of ourselves, such as our capacity to get things wrong, and the fact we are not very nice or reasonable at times.
My shadow includes a know-it-all tendency, of which I can be in denial, as it doesn’t fit with my preferred self-image of compassion, listening and caring. As a newly promoted leader in the corporate realm, I used to shoot down my team’s ideas before they finished speaking. Worse, I felt that this behavior made me valuable. Eventually, when I called upon my team to come up with ideas, the room would fall silent. I blinded myself to the effect my shadow was having, because I didn’t want to accept I could act in such a way, so I blamed others for being lazy. If leadership is unleashing others’ potential, then I was failing. By owning and accepting my tendency to be an ideas assassin, I can notice when my shadow takes over.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“What if it isn’t about you but those you serve and those who come after you?”
How can our readers further follow your work?
My book Thoughtful Leadership: A Guide to Leading with Mind, Body and Soul is published by Leaping Hare Press.