Recently I’ve met with several leaders who've been shaken up by various experiences—being let go from a job, being moved to a different role, family health crises, and general burnout. As I’ve shared recently, I’ve also been going through several transitions and challenges (lessons from cancer and the pain and promise of transitions) that have shaken up my foundation. As I’ve reflected on my own life and those of the leaders I’ve met with recently, I’ve come to see more clearly the importance of building and maintaining your foundation. To keep standing amidst change and challenge, you have to care for your foundation.
Dealing with the Cracks in Your Foundation
I’ve realized that part of what I’m dealing with now are cracks in my foundation—issues from the past that are coming to the surface in a new way due to a different life stage. I’ve also realized that had I not had the foundation I do have in place, I know I wouldn’t have fared as well through these challenges.
The truth that has become apparent to me is that I tend to ignore my foundation for well-being until a crack becomes evident, and pain, stress, and burnout start to rule the day. I think this is human nature.
We tend to ignore the foundation of our well-being because there’s not an immediate payoff for spending time and energy building it when we’re doing “OK.”
I’m focusing again on my foundation, and I want to encourage you to do the same—even when no one is looking, and even when there is no immediate reward. If you do, then when the storm hits, you'll able to weather it, and maybe even become a better person because of it.
Just as important, the people you lead and love rely on you to keep your foundation intact. This is your #1 job if you're going to have a sustained positive impact on your family, co-workers, and organization as a whole.
So, what constitutes our foundation? There are probably lots of elements and many ways to think about it. I hope these three aspects will resonate with you, but I’d also encourage you to personalize the elements of your foundation. Refine and reflect on these, and add any that you feel are missing.
3 Essential Practices to Build a Foundation for Well-being and Positive Influence
Here are 3 practices to build your foundation for well-being and positive influence in the world.
1. Develop Your Attachment Relationships. I’ve realized anew that I can’t be a lone ranger and still expect to be healthy and make a positive impact on people. I’ve been broken and realized I need the closest people in my life—the people to whom I’m attached. These are the people who provide two things for us:
1) comfort when we’re distressed; and
2) a haven of safety to explore the world.
This means we need to reach out even when it’s scary or uncomfortable. And it means we need to do our best to be there for those people as well; to create a relational space for mutual love and care. There are times when we need others more, and times when others in our lives need us more. The key is to be fluid and flexible. Be open to your own needs and to the needs of others.
2. Invest in Community. Community is the fabric of our existence. In his recent book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek reminds us that, “human beings exist as individuals and as members of groups at all times.” (p. 37) “Some believe,” he continues, “we should always put others first—that if we don’t look out for the group the group won’t look out for us. Others believe we should always put ourselves first and that if we don’t take care of ourselves first, then we would be of no use to anyone else. The fact is, both are true.” Yes, we are individuals, but we are deeply shaped by the communities in which we live and work.
In a recent report called Hard Wired to Connect, a group of developmental scholars and practitioners developed the concept of “authoritative communities.” These are communities that combine warmth and structure, and pass on to the next generation what it means to live a good life. They note that we internalize values from mentors and authority figures in our community. When people in our community believe in us and guide us, our character is formed. But you need to be present and involved in your community to create the opportunities for others to build into your life. In addition, your communities need you to reach their potential. You bring unique gifts, talents, and perspective based on your life experiences. Figure out how you can best contribute to your communities and invest.
3. Discern Your Calling and Purpose. If you’re in the beginning stage of your career, this is a crucial time to build your foundation for a life of meaningful work. Think about your core beliefs and worldview. What is the message your work will bring to the world? Think about your greatest contribution. You’ll find this at the intersection of your core motivations, passions (what's wrong with the world that you feel compelled to fix?), and expertise.
Reflect on what naturally motivates and drives you. Think about the deeper themes of your work. Just list them out in bullet points. This will give you a window into where you make your strongest contribution because these themes will reflect ways in which you’ve provided real value for others, and been deeply connected to your work.
If you’re in the middle or later stages of your career, you may need to take some time to reflect on your past work life and come to terms with it so you can move forward. Les Greenberg, developer of Emotion Focused Therapy says, “You can’t leave a place until you arrive there.” I’ve been working with several people who are looking back on their career in the process of preparing for the last stage. Before you can move on to make a stronger positive impact in the next stage of your career, whatever that is, you must come to terms with the choices you’ve made and the experiences you’ve had. Sometimes this is painful and involves grieving some losses. But I encourage you to do this with a stance of compassion toward yourself and process with people who will also have this stance. There are undoubtedly good emotional reasons for the choices you’ve made, and directions you took. Give yourself grace, and the space to feel whatever comes up as you process. As you do this, you’ll find you're able to accept the past for what it is and look forward to a meaningful tomorrow. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it will happen as you do the work of building your foundation.
These areas are not rocket science, but they are the fabric that holds our lives together and creates a meaningful life and a sense of well being. I hope these practices will help you begin today to strengthen your foundation.
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