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Leading in Turbulent Times

How to attune to your own and your team’s energy levels during times of uncertainty

13 December 2021 • by Susan Goldsworthy in Leading in Turbulent Times

A good energy-management strategy is crucial in turbulent times, says Susan Goldsworthy Oly, IMD Affiliate Professor....

A good energy-management strategy is crucial in turbulent times, says Susan Goldsworthy OLY, Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD.


Most obviously, working out the right balance between colleagues being in the office and working from home is top of mind for many people, even as there is not yet broad consensus on what that balance looks like. Wall Street banks have recently made clear that they expect staff to be in the office most, if not all, the time, whereas in Europe banks are adopting a range of approaches.

The pandemic has created enormous stress and uncertainty, but this crisis offers us a tremendous opportunity to change to a new model of leadership. Central to this is rethinking how we’re not only managing our energy but also attuning to the energy of others and our environment.

Since early 2020, I’ve been asking executives: “How has your energy been in the past two months?” Leveraging the Energy quadrants model from Tony Schwartz, in April 2020, between 5% and 15% of executives said they felt they were operating in survival or burnout modes. However, since April 2021 this figure has risen to between 35% and 75% of executives feeling they are in survival or burnout mode, and only 30-40% report being in the performance zone. And, increasingly, people in performance mode also share that they are moving more quickly between feelings of frustration or exhaustion. This is critical. It means that, even if you feel you’re doing well, there’s a high likelihood that the other people in the (virtual) room with you are in a different space.

Therefore, the way we relate to each other needs to change whereby we bring our humanity, our compassion and our whole selves to the discussion. Your role, as a leader, is to create the conditions, or “secure base space”, where you and other people can ‘play to thrive’ in the uncertainty of a massively changing world.

Saving F.A.C.E

Stress triggers four buttons in our brains that are all somewhat inter-related: Fairness, Autonomy, Certainty and Empathy. Leaders can work with this model to offset increasing uncertainty by creating the environment where people feel both safe and supported enough to be able to share how they are feeling, without fear of judgment or being offered a solution. Allowing people to express what is bothering them reduces the negative emotion in the amygdala and helps people to refocus on the choices they have and the actions they can take.

Connecting with ourselves

In managing our energy, it is important to attune to our bodies, which are great communicators of how we’re really feeling. If we ignore the signals, such as signs of stress, they will just get stronger and more serious. Yet small changes can make a massive difference; one thing to prioritize is simply moving your body. As Gabriela Gabrowski, a professional pilates teacher, explains: “Our bodies are made to move, and movement is medicine.”

Also, if you have an expensive car, you wouldn’t put the wrong fuel in the tank. However, we rarely consider the fuel we are putting into our own bodies which need to support us for much longer than any man-made machine. There is some truth in the old adage, “You are what you eat.”

In business, we use a lot of machine metaphors. We talk about the engine of growth, KPIs, efficiencies, controls. Machines can operate 24/7. But we’re not machines, we’re living systems, and we need a nurturing or stimulating environment in order to function well and grow. Somehow, it became a badge of honor to work all hours. Yet, in sports, high performers know that rest and recovery are vital ingredients of success. Along with exercise and diet, getting enough sleep is critical to revitalize

Connecting with each other

Human beings are a social species and have two psychological drivers:  the need for acceptance (to belong) and the need for achievement (to have meaning). When we have both, we feel grounded. Secure bases are people, (as well as places, events, beliefs, experiences) that both support us and stretch us to move outside our comfort zones. Secure bases are like the springs on a trampoline; the more you have the more resilience you have to bounce back when you fall. Without a ‘secure base space,’ people struggle to fulfil their potential.

If we feel our environment is psychologically safe, it releases productive energy. We can be curious, creative, innovative and playful; characteristics that organizations desperately need in order to co-create the solutions for the challenges we face.  It is about shifting from a power-over, dominating model of leadership to a power-with, collaborative model of leadership. We must challenge ourselves to have the courage to care, dare and share together.

As a species, we need to shift from considering ourselves “apart from nature” to being “a part of nature,” moving from an ego approach to an eco one. We can only be healthy if the planet we are blessed to call home is healthy. Instead of focusing on mankind or humankind, we need to be far more inclusive and reflect on how we are nurturing livingkind.

When we learn to truly listen, to truly see and to truly attune to the energy all around, then we can act in the present and future benefit of both people and the planet.


Susan Goldsworthy

Susan Goldsworthy

Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD

Susan Goldsworthy OLY is an Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD. Co-author of three award-winning books, she is also an Olympic swimmer. She is a highly qualified executive coach and is trained in numerous psychometric assessments. She is Director of the IMD Executive Coaching Certificate and Program Director of the Leading Sustainable Change program.

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