It's ok, you can stop what you are doing, for a moment

It’s that time of year again when people start recounting the happenings of one year coming to an end in anticipation of moving into a new year.  As we charge through December we head into what I call the ‘looking back list’ month.  There is no escaping the dance between journalist and reader as we collectively reminisce. It can be the year in pictures, favourite moments or top 100 songs of 2011.  Whatever the topic, the focus is on looking back before we get to 1 January.

Putting aside the content and topic of such retrospectives, I would like to explore the individual experience. In particular I want to comment on the impact this time of year can have on leaders and business owners– no matter your role, size of business or experience.

You already know a lot

As a leader / business owner it is likely you have had your fair share of learning. Whether you participated in 360 degree feedback or joined in a leadership immersion, you will likely have dunked your head in knowledge, ideas, inspiration, theories and practices.  As you come up for air at the end of another year the question is not what next to do but often what not to do. 

We can become overwhelmed by the numerous sources of expectation that come our way.   Even so your level of self awareness and consequential behaviour can shift radically into a more positive and constructive direction. This benefits you and others around you.  You also can be in a position of clarity knowing even more about what you need to continue the personal growth.

You have loads of experience

Not only is the formal learning journey an interesting one, when you sign up as leader you also get the extra benefits of on the job learning. Equally as important and often more important than what you learn from a book, the leader by experience journey can take you down some windy roads. What may see challenging and tough when you are in it can become an amazing breakthrough with a dose of hindsight. You gain wisdom, insight and practical hands on knowledge that you can personally apply to unique situations and share with others following you. Another year passes in time, another year of insight.   

Feeling weighed down from the pressure?

Yet in the context of such great personal growth, the end of the year can also be a time of exhaustion, frustration and angst.  There is the feeling of an artificial end date, running out of time, wanting to put to bed projects.  This is part of the territory when you step into a leadership role or decide to run a business no matter the size.

The fact is we embark on a journey without any knowing of the road ahead. We may think we know. We can learn how to put a strategy together, map out a plan, gather the team. Yet do we really know what is around the corner? Can you really predict that the way you see your world unfolding will occur as predicted?  It is this unrealistic expectation that I believe trumps all the others. Metaphorically the game we play of saying we know where to go can at times feel like carrying water in buckets with a yoke around the shoulders.  The expectations and demands can weigh down even the strongest leader.

The weight can come from internal and external forces. By internal I mean how an individual perceives, thinks, feels and responds to situations from their worldview.  By external I mean how other people, systems and environmental forces create events and changes that force the leader to respond whether personally or through coaching, direction and guidance of others.

End of year personal stock take

Now take this leadership experience into an end of year context.  The end of the year often represents a marking point for all of us to stop and take stock. For some the end of the year is a welcome respite, a chance to stop, slow down and take a break. For others the end of the year becomes the ever-encroaching finish line for many deadlines and projects.

It's important to not just cope, manage and deal with this time but to make the most of it for your self and your approach as a leader / business owner?

I believe this is the ideal time to do what may seem counter to your common sense – stop!  Yes to stop whatever is not critical nor business essential.  Take a pause and gather your breath.  Get an idea of what is working and not working in your life as a leader or business owner.

Why?

Transition points are always important and powerful markers for change.  The key is whether you are consciously engaged in the experience at the time of transition or not.  For if you are engaged then you in effect co-create the experience of change rather than have change happen to you. This subtle but powerful shift in language reflects an even more powerful belief system underneath. For when we believe that change happens to us and we have no control over it we can end up throwing our hands up in the air and giving up. Or more likely we turn down the effort or internal drivers to just enough.  Great way to conserve energy, not a great way to have a rewarding work experience.  

Then to turn the other way and say you have 100% control over all situations is also fanciful.  You have control of some aspects of situations – eg your thoughts and actions. Yet what happens around you is sometimes not of your making. You instead need to choose how you respond.  It is in this space where the true personal power lies – the space within you where you make the choice of how you respond.  This is what I mean by co-creating in times of transition. When you acknowledge that you have a part to play it is then about identifying to what extent and how much. In some situations you may feel small and insignificant. In others like you have the Midas touch.

So taking the middle ground here, end of the year reviews are in fact extremely practical and possibly transformational opportunities for you as a leader or business owner. It is in this artificially created shifting time zone that you can consciously focus on areas you wish to improve, change, let go, shift, step into.

This is a time for you.

So how?

Now I presume that if you are reading this and you are a leader or business owner that you have a good idea of what to do. In addition to your many learning experiences you will likely have sat in your fair share of strategy sessions, business planning meetings, SWOT analysis etc.  So let me add to these approaches and provide some alternatives. Some of what I suggest may be different and out of your comfort zone. So in this context please take on what is right for now.

Get out of your head…

If what you are used to doing is sitting and thinking through your problems then the first step is to get out of your head. Yes not only are you stopping your doing but you are going to stop your thinking. What I mean is to step into a practice or experience that lets you clear your mental baggage. It is from the clear space that you can truly process the year gone by and consider the year ahead.

Meditate, reflect, pause, relax…

The best way to experience this 'get out of your head' clearing is to meditate or enter into a form of focused deep relaxation. Now you may or may not be prepared to meditate.Many of us have blocks to even trying. This is likely related to your preconceived ideas of what meditation should be like.  The truth is there are a variety of ways to get the result of what we seek through such practice - stillness of mind, peace, relaxation, clarity, focus - to name a few.  Depending on your experience level with meditation I suggest you go with what works best for you. 

The key here is that you consciously pause and enter into a practice that allows you to be free of the thoughts being the centre of your attention.  Some suggestions include practicing sitting and focusing on your breathing; progressively relaxing your muscles and noticing what is happening in your body; walking mindfully in nature paying attention to your environment; listening to sounds and focusing on their rhythm; visualizing and feeling a relaxing place in your mind (not thinking but seeing); playing music that feels good for you and letting yourself immerse and escape into the music.  Try something with the intention of relaxing.

If you are already comfortable meditating then you don’t need me to say anything more. Simply go to the place you know in your practice where you feel focused and detached from the noise of your thoughts.

What’s the question you ask…

Once you have allowed yourself to be in this meditative, reflective state then it is time to play the question game. It helps to have a journal or audio recorder (eg phone) handy.  Then start to ask yourself questions and let yourself respond with immediate intuitive answers. It is best not to censor your self and just let your answers come forth.  You may or may not have some questions you prepare beforehand.  Keep them simple though so the process doesn’t take you back too much into the over-thinking.  From this reflective place ask questions about the year you are leaving and the year you are moving into.

Seems simple but actually not so easy. There may be emotions that come up. This is fine.  The emotions are also part of the story. Rather than give into the temptation of either analyzing or feeding these emotions, let them just flow naturally.  You can if you are up to it also pause back in your state and ask the emotion why it is coming up. I know, sounds strange but when you are in the experience just notice what happens if you try this step.  You end up with some interesting insights.  In your notes make sure you keep a little indicator of the feelings you had when certain information comes up.

Dreams create new beginnings…

Now the fun part, well at least I love this part so probably I am sharing my bias.  With an idea of the above all cleared and now on paper or in audio it’s time to dream. Time to really open up the wish list and just imagine anything and everything that you desire or wish for in the context of your role as a leader/business owner. It can be anything.  You may find that you need to prompt yourself to get this information. It often helps to have someone else ask you the questions or even take you through a visualisation. In the absence of  a helper you can try a meditation on your own.  Then you have your picture of what you want.

Now it is important to distinguish that what I am talking about here is not a traditional gap analysis or SWOT. What I am indicating is the process that you can go through to connect more deeply into the authentic and real part of you as a leader/business owner. It is from this place that you are more committed, passionate, patient and persistent.  This is where the effectiveness comes from.

Choose where you want to go now…

Ok now you have the reflective answers to your questions and a dream emerging.  Then what?  Well this is the place where you can get a little bit back into your head again.  You can evaluate and choose what you want to carry forward and what you don’t. Pick what works for you and reserve the rest for later. You will find that there are a whole series of comments that relate to your dream big vision.

Now what you want are to identify the parts of this list into two categories:

  • what supports me and enables me to be the leader/business owner I desire as is in my potential
  • what gets in the way.

Then looking at both consider how you can act in a way that enables you to step into the positive.

Now it will be fun to put this together. You will likely feel inspired and motivated. What you will have is your own version of an end of the year retrospective plus the bonus of prospective ideas.   It won’t be something you broadcast on the news or share in the paper. However you may want to take this to the next level and share what is appropriate with others in your circle. Your action of opening up, sharing and demonstrating commitment to being the best leader / business owner you can be will set an example for others.  You show through example what it means to be truly authentic.