Although drill sergeants represent one form of leadership, barking orders with veins popping out of their necks, that is not the most effective form of leadership in the modern world. Today, with 24/7 communication and a frenetic pace of change, leaders are better served by serenity. Serenity in the face of storms has long been recognized as a virtue. Such a presence gives people hope. But that only works when the presence is real. We can’t just suck it up and pretend. We have to cultivate serenity through practices of rest, recovery, and relaxation. If you read through to the end of this Provision, you’ll find five examples on how to make it so.
People have been writing and talking about the age of anxiety since long before W. H. Auden’s poem by the same name was published in 1946. The term arose in the wake of the industrial revolution, during the 18th and 19th centuries. The major changes that took place in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transport, technology, education, and warfare were rapid and unlike anything the human race had known before.
No wonder the 20th century ended up being so violent. More people were killed in wars and as a result of wars in the 20th century than at any other time in human history. The time between the two world wars, the 1920s and 1930s, was dubbed the age of anxiety at the time. There was a palpable, ominous, brooding, and terrifying energy in the air. You get a sense of this energy in the following excerpt from Remarque’s famous 1929 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.
I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me.
What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; • it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?
And that was written before the advent of nuclear weapons! Unfortunately, things have not gotten easier in the 21st century. The digital revolution, ushering in 24/7 communications, along with global mobility has made life even more wired and unpredictable. As a result, anxiety is on the rise in just about every culture and cohort around the world.
One of the most troubling phenomena has been the dramatic rise of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents since the end of World War II. Five to eight times as many of them, including young children, meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago. How could that be? Five to eight times more than during the age of anxiety itself? Five to eight times more than during the Great Depression? Than during World War II? Or than during the Cold War?
The answer, it appears, has something to do with the digital revolution. The world has changed in ways that are increasingly mentally stimulating and decreasingly physically stimulating. Such stimulation, especially when it is constant, is a recipe for disaster. It disrupts our sleep, eliminates our exercise, controls our choices, and jeopardizes our identity. Instead of defining ourselves and our time in autonomous, value-oriented ways, we now find ourselves and our time increasingly defined by others in disruptive, exchange-oriented ways.
What do I mean by that? While writing this Provision I have already had multiple text messages, friend requests on Facebook and Skype, as well as email offers to watch the week’s top videos, to detoxify during the upcoming US Thanksgiving holiday, and to purchase numerous items at soon-to-expire discounts. Such continuous exchanges of extrinsic value make it hard to focus not only on writing a Provision but also on developing an intrinsic sense of self. When we are bombarded 24/7 with such stimulation, it’s hard not to get depressed or anxious.
And children, as evidenced by the record rise in these disorders, are the most vulnerable. Children require self-directed learning and play in order to become autonomous, fully-functional adults. Unfortunately, self-direction is in short supply in just about every environment. At home and in school children are controlled beyond measure compared to what was happening in the decades following World War II.
Even in 1961, as a six-year-old, I can remember playing outside and exploring wide blocks of territory with my friends. I can hardly imagine a parent doing that today, let alone a kid even wanting to do that with so much digital stimulation at home. The trend continues with adults. Our homes and workplaces have become trading places for tokens of exchange-oriented value. We are all living in the same digital world and we are all suffering its effects.
So what’s a person to do, and what’s a leader to do, in the context of such environments? Unplug from the grid at regular intervals. Serenity matters, and the only way to experience serenity is to develop healthy rhythms of engagement and disengagement. Always on may work for silicon-based life forms (computers) but it does not work for carbon-based life forms (human beings). We need to sleep, rest, breathe, and otherwise control our level of stimulation if we hope to minimize anxiety, depression, and other bio-psycho-social dysfunctions.
In this day and age, that takes intentionality and effort. People will not do this for us; in fact, they will • often inadvertently and sometimes overtly • work against our meeting these important needs. People don’t like to be told, “No.” And many of us have a hard time telling people, “No.” But “No.” is a complete sentence, it requires no explanation and no qualifiers to be understood. And “No.” is the beginning of “Yes.” when it comes to serenity.
But “No.” is not enough. If we simply substitute one source of digital stimulation for another we can end up just as anxious and just a depressed as if we had said “Yes.” If we say “No.” to a project at work and then end up losing sleep over some other digital diversion or demand, what have we accomplished? Not much when it comes to serenity.
And serenity matters when it comes to leadership. In the face of anxious times, people expect and need leaders who not only look calm, cool, and collected but who actually feel that way in their hearts and minds. Many leaders have a good poker face when it comes to the people they work with and the public they face. But if it’s not authentic, it fails the scratch and sniff test and it fails to inspire.
True serenity comes from taking the time to meet our needs for rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. Those needs, like many others, must be met on a daily basis. How do we do that? Here are five suggestions:
Sleep. Set aside at least 6 hours, and ideally 7 or 8 hours, every night. Make it a rhythm, going to bed and waking up at more or less the same time every day. If you work the night shift, be sure to block the windows in your bedroom in order to meet your body’s need for darkness.
Melatonin. This hormone, naturally secreted by the pineal gland at night in response to darkness, is part of the rest-and-recover nervous system. Unfortunately, the digital revolution also means a dramatic decrease in the amount of darkness in our daily lives and in our world. Taking supplemental melatonin, both swallow and sublingual, right before sleep, is one way to make up for that deficiency.
Breathe. Deep, regular, rhythmic breathing has long been recognized by researchers and meditators alike as the key to what has been called the “relaxation response.” Serenity is not facilitated by panting. One simple technique is to breathe in to the count of 5 and breathe out to the count of 5 for at least 5 minutes. Do that twice a day and serenity may follow.
Biofeedback. Many people, especially many Westerners, have a hard time sitting still and breathing without a focal point. That’s why many people gaze at a candle to support their breath work. An even more effective tool, ironically itself part of the digital revolution, is biofeedback. These devices, such as HeartMath and Relaxing Rhythms, play music and use soothing images such as butterfly wings to promote heart coherence.
Exercise. There is no doubt that physical and psychological well-being are inextricably intertwined. We cannot have one without the other. Exercise, it has been said, is medicine. That’s because it represents not only a powerful deterrent to weight gain and chronic disease, but also to anxiety and depression. An hour a day, unplugged from the grid, will do wonders for the soul.
Many of you perhaps know the famous “Serenity Prayer” by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, give us grace to accept with Serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” That prayer leaves out an important part of the equation. We not only need to “accept with Serenity the things that cannot be changed,” we also need to accept the gift of grace.
And that’s not just a simple “Thank you.” That is an active cultivation of Serenity through practices such as sleep, breathwork, meditation, prayer, and exercise. It takes works to relax. How’s that for a conundrum! We have to say “No.” and then we have to unplug. It may be hard, at first, but it is surely worth the effort.
Coaching Inquiries: How do you cultivate serenity? What place do you see it playing in your life and leadership? How could serenity become more a part of your life? Who do you know who models serenity, even in the face of danger or threat? What are their practices for cultivating that state of mind? How could you draw closer to them in order to learn and grow?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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