Managerial Survival Guide: The Short Course

“Quality of life depends on what happens in the space between stimulus and response.” Steven Covey

This concept changed my life as a very young manager. When I fully understood its power, it helped me immeasurably in management positions for 40 years and as a CEO for ten. I came to understand that you always have a choice as to how you respond to events and situations and making that choice is obviously a conscious, not a visceral, act. Being aware that you have that choice gives you the option to choose in a healthy way. You simply don’t have to be on a perpetual emotional roller coaster, and that is a monumentally liberating realization.

To consistently make that choice a wise one, I learned that it always helps to take a few deep breaths before you respond or say anything, especially in a crisis. The more deep breaths you can take, the more likely you will respond in a constructive way, even when a situation is dire or tragic. So when I retired the best survival advice I could give my replacement was deceptively simple: remember to breathe. It will help you think and respond well.

First the appropriate caveat. I am not a scientist nor do I have specific technical or professional expertise in what follows. I have no degrees in this area, though quite a bit of training, a lot of reading and study on these subjects and robust trial and error over many decades to find what worked well for me. And the wisdom here comes from literally thousands of years of tradition and practice from around the globe and can help anyone dealing with significant amounts of stress. So, here’s the key advice I gave to the person that replaced me in their first CEO assignment.

Being in a position of authority with decision making responsibility and with people depending on you to perform well has many challenges; challenges that in a psychological sense can be punctuated by a panoply of traumas, or let’s just say near or mini-traumas as a matter of routine, even in the healthiest of organizations. Corporate street wisdom suggests that the cultural health of an organization can be measured by the speed with which bad news travels to the top, and even in the best of organizations things are by no means perfect.

In fact, as the nature of business is in many ways principally solving problems, much of your job is to solve the big ugly problems no one else has yet or can, so there’s always plenty of bad news and problems to go around at the top of a healthy organization, department or business function. Be happy when the big ugly problems routinely hit your desk, though, because that means they’re not being hidden from you.

But getting slapped with traumas or mini-traumas or even threats or mini-threats as a matter of course, no matter how good you are at what you do or how well you are able to provide advice and counsel and delegate issues out to the responsible parties, will without question trigger multiple, cascading stress responses if left unchecked. Experts in this tell me the trauma or threat triggers a standard primordial fight, flight or freeze stress response.

I’ve been counseled that your biological thinking process under stress reverts to the brain stem and the sympathetic nervous system; the survival instinct of your reptilian brain that triggers body chemistry to go into overdrive: principally cortisol, epinephrine and adrenaline to help you (the threatened reptile) prevent yourself from being eaten by a predator by fighting, fleeing or freezing. This constant state of agitation and defensive chemistry flooding the body as a matter of habit can have myriad devastating long-term health effects.

But there is a fourth response to the trauma or threat. It is flow. The person in a position of authority, as a matter of survival, can become a master of flow so as to consciously bypass the reptilian brain to the parasympathetic nervous system. He or she chooses to flow, rather than to fight, flee or freeze.

It requires routine monitoring of your inner voice and bodily reactions to events, and when it is clear that annoyance is triggered, heart rate amps, breathing gets short, hands get cold, eyes sharpen and the urge to bite deeply into the neck of the unfortunate messenger becomes overwhelming, the accomplished person in charge does well to remember his/her Lamaze breathing and gets right to it. If you’ve taken a yoga or mindful meditation class, you’ll also know exactly what to do.

Deep breathing at this precise moment…at the point of agitation…in through the nose, deep into the lungs and slowly breathing out through the mouth…with practice can contradict the stress response and initiates a different thinking process. The breathing triggers the thinking process in the frontal lobe of the brain, which thankfully is considerably evolved from the reptilian brain stem.

Initially concentrating on your breathing rather than the emotional impacts of the immediate trauma helps to balance body chemistry and allows you to relax, think rationally and stay calm. In other words, you choose to flow…not to fight, flee or freeze…and you still survive, gracefully and with peace of mind, and without gleefully devouring other beings in close range. Because you’re thinking like a human, and not a reptile.

So, remember to breathe when confronted, when challenged, when perplexed, when stymied, when exhausted, when you encounter bad news and just as a technique to bring your best thinking to the routine challenges of the deeply uncertain conditions you are encountering now in business, and in life. You need all the help you can get to make healthy choices, and wise decisions. Breathing well and choosing to flow will help.

Mind of peace = peace of mind. Never forget it!

(Original art by J.E. Hargate)




Arthur Hargate is retired after a 40-year management career in the environmental services business. He now writes, plays guitar and is a social activist.

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Arthur Hargate

Arthur Hargate

Arthur Hargate is retired after a 40-year management career in the environmental services business. He now writes, plays guitar and is a social activist.

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