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People first

There's a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. As I write this article we are hopeful that we will be able to unfreeze the world we have been living in since March 2020. Understandably, we are keen to return to our life: normality, however, is gone forever: we will be living in a new context. But before moving to that new context, it is important to pause and to reflect on a very simple question:
What did we learn from this pandemic… in addition to basic sanitary measures and a million other facts or myths about Covid-19, that is?

People first
People first

When we think about what makes a good life and what makes us happy, many people would respond by saying “money and fame”. Most also believe that the path to get there is hard work and, especially for younger generations, visibility on social media. Correct?

Understanding happiness

The longest study ever conducted started at Harvard in 1938 and is ongoing. This study selected 724 men, some of whom are still alive, and measured at regular intervals over many decades their degree of health and happiness. Some of these men have had amazing lives, while some ended up with serious addictions and personal problems. What makes these people healthy and happy? Fame? Money? Quite simply the answer is good relationships with other people, starting from their spouses and families. It is about knowing that people will be there for you when you need them. It is about connections, real connections with real people, not the number of followers or likes on social media.

So what has been happening since the beginning of the pandemic? We had to break most connections; we could not visit our families and even when we could we were not supposed to hug or have any physical contact.

On top of this disconnected – or frozen – world of relationships, we started to get deeply worried about our jobs. As an executive coach I have witnessed that while some people are overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of work without any boundaries – “days full of Zooms” – others are worried about losing their jobs as their companies and sectors struggle to survive. It is difficult to say which is the worse situation.

Focus on wellbeing

Lastly, as citizens we are deeply concerned: if Adam Smith were born today I guess he would title his book The Health of Nations rather than The Wealth of Nations as measuring a citizen's health appears to be a more relevant indicator of prosperity than mere GDP per head. A recent survey by the Harvard Business Review  of nearly 1,500 people from 46 countries revealed that the vast majority of us – 85 per cent – are struggling with general and workplace wellbeing. Interestingly, the survey featured as part of a six-part series that HBR has devoted to what it calls the “Burnout Crisis”. Another study, conducted by Gallup , shows us that in terms of staff morale we are now at the same (low) level as in the middle of the financial crisis back in 2009.

In my seminars and workshops, I always ask a simple question: which word comes to mind when you think of a great leader? I ask participants to think about a real manager they've worked with, not a legendary icon such as, for example, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. No matter what the composition of the “audience”, people always respond by quoting human qualities such as trust, self-awareness, integrity, compassion, listening, support and empathy. No one has ever responded by quoting financial results. Not once.

As an executive coach I have the good fortune to work alongside amazing people, mostly CEOs and senior executives. They know their stuff pretty well, I can assure you. But what they have learnt is that in addition to demonstrating professional competency and business acumen, they also need to motivate their teams by demonstrating that they really care about them. And this is something that isn't always in the leadership training manual.

Learning self-care

The pandemic and the evident suffering that is going on inside and around us, gives us a chance to better understand the need to demonstrate self-care and genuine care and empathy for others.

What do we mean by self-care? It is about making sure that we have our energy charged: physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. And all of these have been severely depleted over the last 15 months. One example: would you drive after drinking three glasses of wine? Of course not, it is illegal and dangerous: three glasses of wine reduces our mental capacity by 35 per cent. Would you make an important decision after a sleepless night? You shouldn't but we frequently do, even if a restless night is known to reduce our cognitive capacity by 40 per cent. Compare this with the way we care for our phones. How many times do we check the level of their batteries? Are we concerned when we see that we have only 10 per cent left? We are. Yet do we demonstrate the same concern for our own energy?

A very interesting study, shared by Jordan B Peterson in his book 12 Rules for Life, points out that when we take our pet to the vet, 98 percent of us follow the instructions the vet gives us. When we go to the doctor for ourselves, only 40 percent of people follow the instructions and guidance we are given. So, we care more about our cat and dogs than ourselves.

Self-care is therefore good judgment and the foundation for an effective leader; one who is able not only to be “efficient”, but also to demonstrate caring and empathy.

Learning empathy

Since Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman was published in 1995, we have been reading and thinking about empathy. While we understand the term by now, we also need to internalise the three components of empathy:
1) Cognitive – empathy is to fully understand what the other person feels.
2)Emotional – it's about feeling what the other person feels or at least demonstrating and acknowledging their suffering and prevalent feeling.
Most people get all this. But the third part is where we get stuck...
3) Action – we also need to do something about it, otherwise we end up confirming the “crocodile tears” proverb.

Indeed, we need to consider The Health of Nations, with organisations, communities and people as the main foundation of their “real” wealth. Self-care, taking care of others with empathy, institutionalising caring, are all moral imperatives and the starting point for every good leader. They are also the starting point for business excellence. People can give their best only when they are at their best, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They also need a sense of purpose that is meaningful to them, not just a financial goal that has been imposed by someone else.

How to thrive

Dave Ulrich, widely considered to be the father of modern human resources and leadership, has written: “To make it through these perilous times and to discover opportunity beyond the present crisis, take care of yourself. If you share credit in successes and involve others in decisions, you create a team-based organisation. When you bring your personal values to this organisation, it becomes a culture where people thrive.”

Looking at this incredible period of our lives we need to reflect on the lessons we have learnt. We can restart and reset the system only if we start with self-care and caring for others with sincere empathy, not limited to “feeling”, but also translated into concrete actions.

It starts from us, here and now: business plans and economic recovery will follow. Caring: people first.