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Personal Gamechangers: Remaining Fit to Lead When Life Throws You a Major Curveball

Posted by Shelli Jackson, Ph.D. on 09/19/2017
Many of my clients and friends have heard me talk about “gamechangers.”  I most often refer to them when someone shares an issue with me about which they are quite stressed.  I ask them to consider, “Is this a gamechanger?”  I use it as a coping tool, really.  Asking the person to consider whether the stressor is a gamechanger leads to a shift in perspective from a narrow focus of the immediate crisis to a bigger picture, long-term perspective.  Most often, the person can respond to my question with a “no” and a sigh of relief.  Recognizing and acknowledging that, although the issue is quite difficult for them to tolerate in the present, it is temporary and will not change the course of their life in general makes the present more tolerable. 

But, what about those times when the answer to the gamechanger question is “yes, this IS a gamechanger?”  Well, I recently answered “yes” to my question. 

My Gamechanger
It was a Saturday evening just after our children had successfully kicked off a new school year.  My husband, sons, and I were relaxing after a busy week, when the call came.  “Hello,” I said.  “Shelli, I am sorry to bother you, but Jim and Patty were supposed to meet us for dinner at 6:30 and they still haven’t shown up.  We’ve called them several times and can’t reach them.  Have you heard from them?” responded the caller, a family friend.  Initially, Rob and I attributed their tardiness to miscommunication about the meeting time or an unexpected delay.  However, their whereabouts were still unknown two hours later, despite many efforts to locate them.  That’s when the police officer came to our door—a potential gamechanger moment.

We came to learn that my in-laws were being treated at a metro hospital’s emergency room to address injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident.  They had multiple injuries and would require help during recovery; however, their injuries were not life threatening.  Gamechanger averted?  Well, not exactly.  Information emerged in the days after the accident that brought us to a realization that the accident was just one symptom of a much larger emerging problem.  To make a very long story shorter, a pattern of cognitive decline for my father-in-law was uncovered that was more pronounced and problematic than any of us previously recognized.  This, coupled with my mother-in-law’s prior diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, led the family to quickly begin the process of moving them from their home in Texas to our community of Norman and into an independent care center.  Gamechanger confirmed.    

While our family continues to navigate this personal challenge, the business of work continues.  As a business owner, clinician, and organizational consultant, I have responsibilities that need my attention regardless of what is happening in my personal life.  I want and need to bring my “A game” to work while also tending to my personal gamechanger at home.  The first week after the accident felt nonstop and sometimes overwhelming.  But now almost a month has passed and we are adapting to a new normal.     

I know that I am not alone in facing such challenges.  We all face gamechangers in life.  While we can’t know in advance when and how crisis will strike, we can trust that it will happen.  As psychologists, we know that people cope better when they are prepared.   

When our gamechanger hit, we were unprepared as a family.  Despite being aware of my mother-in-law’s diagnosis and having noticed signs of cognitive change in my father-in-law, we continued to dismiss the need to really consider how and when we would help them transition to our community and become more involved in their day-to-day life.  Being unprepared as a family for our gamechanger made it all the more difficult for us to face.  It also made it a greater challenge for me to continue to meet my professional obligations during the first few weeks after the accident. 

While I can’t go back and have a “do over” in terms of my own preparedness, I can help others become informed and better equipped to cope at work when personal stressors strike.  So, I decided to share my story with you and to proactively share key steps that you can take to help remain effective as a leader in times of personal crisis.     

Key Steps to Remain Effective at Work During Personal Crisis
  1. Acknowledge Your Emotions but Don’t Let Them Rule You.
As a normal human who is facing abnormal circumstances, of course crisis has an emotional impact on you.  It would be abnormal if it did not.  No matter how hard you try to be yourself and act “normal” at work, other people will notice that you are not yourself.  Psychologist Casey Mulqueen, Ph.D., director of product development with business consultancy The TRACOM Group, offers the following advice:  “Don’t try to pretend that everything is rosy. . . When people have strong emotions, they think about it and think about it, and it affects their performance,” he says.  “Recognize that you feel that way, but don’t get lost in it.  For some people, that takes practice.”  Mindfulness can be a useful tool to improve distress tolerance and maintain focus.  For those interested, you can read more about mindfulness and try some basic exercises at  https://www.mindfulnessmuse.com/mindfulness-exercises/top-10-basic-mindfulness-exercises-part-one.

      2. Practice Self-Care and Self-Compassion.

The things that you normally do to take care of your body, mind and spirit become even more important in times of crisis.  People often neglect self-care during such times, noting that they do not have the time or energy.  It is not optional or self-indulgent to continue self-care in times of crisis.  These efforts are needed in order for you to continue to meet responsibilities and persist through the crisis in the best way possible.  If we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?
Also, be a friend to yourself.  Strive to treat yourself as kindly as you would treat a good friend facing similar circumstances.  We are often much harder on ourselves in our internal dialogue than we would ever be to others.  Despite what you may think, holding yourself to the expectation of being super-human does not make you more effective.  You can still be productive when approaching your challenge with an attitude of acceptance of your humanity and tolerance of your struggle.  For those interested, you can read more about Dr. Kristen Neff’s work on self-compassion at www.selfcompassion.org.
  1. Notify Those Who Need to Know.
Although you may prefer to keep your personal crisis separate from the office, it is best to share some degree of information your team and your boss (if applicable).  They will notice changes in you and in your work, whether or not you choose to disclose it.  Houston-based leadership consultant Todd Dewett, Ph.D., offered the following view, “Many people believe erroneously other people will think somehow less of them; that they’re damaged or not as capable.  These things have to be talked about, so I like to talk about authenticity in owning your situation.”  Letting your team know what you are facing allows them to understand and better tolerate the changes they are seeing.  People will generally be understanding and offer their help.  Your transparency also models for team members that it is okay for them to do the same when crisis occurs.
  1. Find a Sounding Board.
It is important for you to identify a trusted person in whom you can confide and with whom you can double check your judgment as a leader, when needed.  Stress and fatigue could impact your work in ways that you do not recognize, and others may be reluctant to tell you unless you ask and give permission for them to be honest with you.
I routinely recommend that people avoid making major decisions during times of crisis or significant change.  However, this is not always feasible.  Checking your judgment before you act on key leadership decisions during such times can lower the risk that you will make a decision that you later regret.
  1. Stay Organized.
Utilize additional tools, such as list making and reminders on your smartphone, to stay organized and prevent things from falling through the cracks.  Stress and fatigue negatively impact short-term memory, so make a practice of writing things down even when you don’t think you need to.  You will feel less scattered internally and appear less scattered externally if you utilize tools for reminders and cues about tasks and deadlines.
  1. Prioritize and Delegate.
Consider and identify the responsibilities that you must handle yourself, those can be shared with someone else, and those that can be delegated.  You will likely need to delegate more than usual during a time of personal crisis, so be intentional in identifying responsibilities that you can allow someone else to temporarily handle for you.
“Good leaders delegate regularly, especially in times of crisis,” Mulqueen says.  “It’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign that you are dealing with the most urgent issues so you may refocus your attention on your leadership role sooner,” he says.  Explain the temporary nature of the delegated task or responsibility, and, if possible, when you expect to take on the role again yourself.
While I hope that these steps are not needed by you currently, I do hope that you will consider saving them for future reference and will find them useful, when needed.  None of us are immune to personal crisis and having a game plan to manage work obligations will help you to remain effective professionally while tending to your personal gamechanger. 

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