By Mark Guidi
“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.” ― Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven
Having a tough conversation with an employee or absorbing challenging feedback from the board of directors can knock even the strongest leader off balance. On those days, you might feel like a cartoon character windmilling your arms to keep from tipping off a cliff. Eventually, you right yourself, because that’s what you do. That’s called resilience: your ability to recover from change, stress or conflict. Centeredness, based on Aikido principles, changes your perception of and response to setbacks, adversaries and challenges and allows you to enhance your resilience.
Based on research from the Harvard School of Business, the following four qualities contribute to resilience: Mindfulness, Optimism, Positive Thinking and Flow. The graphic below shows the correlation between these qualities and Aikido Centeredness.Mindfulness and Centering for Resilience
Mindfulness is about focusing on the moment through an awareness of your physical, mental and emotional state. It’s about being engaged within and not letting your mind zip about like a hummingbird on steroids. Insurance companies and enterprise businesses are responding to studies that suggest mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation help people cope with stress and trauma, or increase resilience. In Aikido, we practice this by centering. In centering, like in mindfulness, we find our physical, emotional and spiritual center— our balance point and the point at which we are most stable.
If you just heard some bad news, the common response would be increased anxiety and all of the uncomfortable physical symptoms associated with that. You may even look completely calm on the outside while inside your adrenaline is skyrocketing. In this fight or flight state, you can’t hear anything or make sound decisions. Centering, being in the moment, is perfect for restoring calm to your body. You focus on your core, breathe deeply and slow down until the fog clears and you can think rationally and recover your faculties.
Optimism and Extending for Resilience
Optimism is a habit of determining setbacks to be local, temporary and changeable—or minimizing the challenge. Think of the overly optimistic knight guarding the bridge in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail. No matter how many limbs he had severed in battle, he kept insisting that it was “Just a scratch. Just a flesh wound.” Some leaders are naturally more optimistic than others, and it helps them be more resilient.
In Aikido, you can practice, and thereby learn a heightened form of optimism called extending. The practitioner or student doesn’t think of an attacker as an attacker, but as a teacher. Conversely, a challenge is embraced as an opportunity to grow. Extending is giving your Ki, or love and goodwill, to everything and everyone that challenges you. The key is not to fight or resist, but to love and accept the challenges or challenging people in your life. You don’t perceive the setbacks as meant to set you back, but rather; they exist to teach and redirect you.
In leadership and management, as in life, body language is key to relationships. If an employee is voicing a complaint, rather than make a quick decision as to its merit and let your body respond (frowning, leaning back, crossing your arms over your chest), reserve judgment. Maybe that employee isn’t communicating effectively. Try extending your goodwill towards that employee by leaning forward, smiling, or nodding. You can diffuse a tense situation quickly if an irate employee feels “heard” allowing you to get to the heart of the issue and a faster and better resolution.
Positive Thinking and Entering
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the devil said, “The mind…can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” A pragmatist would answer, “Nope. It’s hot. You are definitely in hell.” Positive thinking isn’t self-deception, which is what Milton’s devil was doing, it’s learned optimism and has elements of hope, wisdom, creativity and courage. Positive thinking is powerfully connected to resilience, in that while you fully realize the reality of your situation, you believe you can find a way out.
Entering is similar, but rather than looking for a way out, you step into, or enter the challenging energy, while staying calmly centered and extending love and goodwill. In Aikido, when approached by an attacker, the practitioner never takes a defensive step back, but steps quietly into the attacker’s Ki, or energy. You can’t practice Aikido if you aren’t up close and personal with your attacker.
Think of this the next time you’re in a meeting and someone directly challenges you. Instead of perceiving this as an attack against your authority, take a deep breath, center yourself, and think of the person as a teacher. You don’t have to agree with them, but if you enter into their point of view, using their feedback as an opportunity to grow and understand, the experience becomes educational rather than adversarial.
Flow and Blending
Flow is the ability to be so absorbed in an activity that you lose track of everything else. We call this being “in the zone.” Being in the zone insulates you from time and other stressors while you work through a challenge. It’s about keeping your head down and doing whatever it takes to plow through and emerge somewhat intact. We also call this “survival mode.” In terms of resilience, it’s a valuable coping mechanism.
Blending is about keeping your head up, and rather than plowing through the challenge, moving alongside and going with it. Blending is like a palm tree while flow is like an oak. Palm trees can survive the strongest of hurricanes because; rather than resist the strong winds, they bend with them, sometimes flat against the ground. Oak trees have strong, thick, inflexible roots. They survive by resisting the wind. While it takes some very strong wind to knock down an oak tree, eventually it will be uprooted. Blending is invaluable in that no matter how difficult the challenge, you can recover.
What this looks like, as a leader, is affirmation. You are really seeing the other person’s point of view—literally looking at the situation from their perspective. You come into alignment with their energy, calmly, without resisting by restating their position and affirming it. There will be time for you to speak and get your point across, but in the moment, you communicate your understanding, restating their position in your own words, to show that you aren’t in direct opposition.
Life will knock us down—it’s inevitable. But centering is a practical way you can enhance your resilience and improve your leadership effectiveness.