How to Be a Better Leader in Challenging Times

Leadership can be difficult even in the best of times, but during challenging times, the stress and pressure can cause you to fall apart. Here are tips and strategies for being your best self-and a better leader.

Leaders, are you feeling the pressure? Of course you are. (After the past four months, how could you not be?)  Even those thought to be the “best” leaders are falling apart like two-dollar watches these days. Times of extreme disruption (like right now) underscore the need for many of us to move to a completely new way of leading (and being). And the key to this new style of leadership may surprise you. Inner Peace.

The louder the outward chaos, the greater the need for an internal sense of calm. Those who are able to cultivate this state are far more suited to lead in a world that has been shaken off its foundations.

With Inner Peace—which I define as being fully present in the moment with an open, non-judgmental mind and a lack of self-absorption—you’re open to learning. You’re able to listen to others rather than just confirming your own biases. You’re able to build caring, trusting relationships. All of this allows you and your team to do high-level critical, innovative, and emergent thinking to make better, smarter decisions.

This is hardly a COVID-era issue. I’ve warned for years that leaders who lack humility and the mindset for continuous learning are liabilities. There is just no place for them in a world that increasingly needs critical, innovative, and emergent thinking; effective collaboration; etc. (the “human” skills smart machines can’t replicate). But the pandemic economy shines a spotlight on this truth. 

In precarious times, one big mistake or ill-advised decision can sink a company. And when leaders perpetually act like jerks and blame it on stress—or simply fail to meet the basic psychological needs that allow people to do their best work—they put companies at risk for such missteps.

Hard-charging, ego-driven leaders who behave as if they know all the answers, and whose employees tend to “go along to get along,” used to be seen as powerful and effective. Now, it’s getting clearer by the day that they’re deeply destructive. Companies that allow this kind of leadership will never create a culture in which the best ideas rise to the top. In fact, they will become irrelevant.

Creating a culture based on an idea meritocracy and the psychological principles that support optimal performance means leaders must bring their “Best Self” to work. This means they must become hyper-learners. They must be able to continuously learn, unlearn, and re-learn by adapting to the reality of the world as it evolves, rather than seeking to defend their beliefs and egos. And the first step to that is achieving Inner Peace.

Inner Peace is defined by four underlying components: a Quiet Ego, a Quiet Mind, a Quiet Body, and a Positive Emotional State. By taking ownership of your mind, emotions, and behaviors, you’ll learn to generate the positive emotions that enable high engagement with others and behave in ways that enable them to be their Best Selves also. Here are a few simple steps for achieving Inner Peace:

Take a good look at how you define yourself. 

Ego is one of the biggest inhibitors of Hyper-Learning. When we define ourselves by how much we know and how “smart” we are (a common problem for leaders!), when someone disagrees with us our very sense of self is threatened. If we’re to be open to feedback and willing to challenge our own perceptions, we must first make a conscious decision to quiet the ego.

The first step is admitting you have a non-Quiet Ego! The next step is to redefine yourself, perhaps by the quality of your thinking, listening, relating, and collaborating. Making this mental shift is surprisingly difficult, but it is a necessary starting point.

Give mindfulness meditation a try. 

To be a hyper-learner, you must develop a Quiet Mind that is fully present. Mindfulness meditation can help. It’s a way of focusing awareness to something specific like your breath or a part of your body or an object or mantra and continually bringing your attention back to that thing every time your mind wanders off. Start small: perhaps just two to three minutes at first. Eventually you’ll be able to work your way up to 20 minutes at time.

Mindfulness meditation is Inner Peace “superfood.” Research suggests it may quiet down your brain’s default mode, leading to less self-referential mind-wandering. It also suggests that training in mindfulness can lead to an ability to let go of thoughts rather than fixate on or identify with them.

Engage in acts of gratitude. 

This practice reduces your tendency to be self-centered and cultivates a Quiet Ego. Acts of gratitude may include saying thank you in the moment, writing thank-you notes, keeping a gratitude journal, and every night reflecting back on those who’ve had the biggest positive impacts on your life. 

The idea is to steep yourself in daily reminders that individual success is not all about “me,” and that none of us got here all by ourselves.

Practice deep breathing to calm your body, emotions, and mind. 

Back in 2018 I started practicing deep breathing exercises that the Navy SEALs do and monitoring my heart rate daily. Now I do breathing exercises a couple of times a day to regulate the pace of my body so I can be more in the moment.    

When I experience a fast heart rate, rising temperature, or stress in parts of my body, I immediately do my deep breathing and my self-talk. I tell myself to slow my motor down, and I try to experience a micro-joy—feeling very positive about someone or nature or something positive in my life.

Create micro-joys throughout your workday. 

I’m a big fan of Barbara Fredrickson’s writings on the power of positivity resonance, which is the highest level of human connection that results from the sharing of positive emotions. Teams are far more effective when they can attain this elusive state. Obviously, leaders who are mired in negativity will inhibit positivity resonance and thus team performance. This is why it’s crucial to do what you can to keep yourself in a state of joy and happiness—one of the keys to being your Best Self.

What has worked well for me is creating micro-joys during my day. For example, I might focus mindfully on the beauty of nature, the beauty of colors, the unconditional love of a pet, seeing a friend in passing and wishing them a good day, thanking a custodian for keeping the bathroom so clean at work, and going out of my way to smile and express gratitude to fellow workers for specific things I have witnessed.

Create your daily intentions. 

Spending 15 minutes or so each morning reflecting on how you want to behave and measuring yourself can help you start your day with the right mindset. This can involve inspirational readings and journaling. In my book Hyper-Learning, I include a workshop to help readers cultivate their own daily intentions.

Daily intentions are very personal. The idea is to consciously choose how you are going to react and behave and what you’re going to pay attention to each day. This is very powerful.

These tips may not be what you were expecting. They may seem a little “touchy feely”—but that perception should just reinforce how fundamentally you need to change to succeed in the new workplace. The world has evolved, and it’s time for leaders to evolve as well. Inner Peace is our foundational building block.

Human Excellence in today’s workplace is heavily dependent upon our being able to control our mind, body, and emotions. If we can’t, we can’t bring our “Best Self” to every meeting and to every conversation. Inner Peace is what allows us to reduce internal noise and distraction so that we can better engage with the outer world. And, besides, it just feels a lot better than living in constant stress and turmoil. 

About the Author:

Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration, Batten Fellow, and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden School of Business and the author of Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, September 2020, ISBN: 978-1-523-08924-6, $29.95). Professor Hess spent 20 years in the business world as a senior executive and has spent the last 18 years in academia. He is the author of 13 books, over 140 articles, and 60 Darden case studies. For more information, please visit 

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