How do you stand when all you want to do is to lie down?
The writer

How do you stand when all you want to do is to lie down?

In one of my recent coaching sessions for a group of young leaders, one leader asked me, “How do I find the energy to move on in the face of doubt and challenges?” 

During another learning session with a group of leaders, one leader asked, “What do you do when you are overwhelmed”?

Leaders at all levels are feeling the pressure of leading in today’s challenging situations. Some leaders have become overwhelmed because they have been unable to meet their stakeholders' expectations despite their hard work.

For others, the daily grind of leading in a context that they feel is not amenable to change has become unbearable. They are afraid they may not accomplish what they have set out to do.

In the movie Invictus, which depicts the South African Rugby team's journey to victory in the 1995 World Cup, there is a memorable scene illustrating the challenges leaders face and how to overcome them. In this scene, Mandela had a conversation with Francios Pienaar, the captain of the Springboks. 

The Springboks had been playing badly ahead of the World Cup. As hosts of the World Cup, their preparations had not been going well, and it seemed they would crash out of the World Cup. The captain and the team did not have the support of the nation. The conditions in 1995 differ from the situation today. 

Today, the team is celebrated, and the current captain is famous, having won the World Cup in 2019. In the case of Captain Francios Pienaar, in 1995, there were suggestions that he should be sacked. Journalists were against him. He was overwhelmed and beginning to trust the naysayers. 

Mandela knew that Francios Pienaar was going through a dark patch and he needed someone to help him see a ray of light.

As someone who had endured leadership challenges, he knew how dark such a place could be and how the darkness could push the leader over the cliff. Mandela invited Francois over for tea.

The conversation that ensued offers many insights for leaders who are struggling or feeling overwhelmed. You may not receive a call from Mandela to help you unravel the issues and inspire you to greatness.

However, you can use the ideas from the conversation to overcome your challenges and inspire yourself to greatness.

Clarify your reason for leading:

Many leaders get into the grind and get so busy with the job of leading that they forget what made them start the journey. Leaders need to constantly remind themselves why they started the journey and what it means to lead. 

Mandela started the conversation by telling Pienaar that "you have a very difficult job" and asked him to reflect on what leadership means. 

A little reflection will remind every leader that there are dark spots on this difficult leadership journey. Leaders must recognise and name the pain points they are experiencing.

Acknowledging the situation and putting it in perspective makes it possible to deal with being overwhelmed by the challenge. After all, you may have a situation to deal with, but the sky is certainly not falling.

Leaders must remind themselves of their purpose despite obstacles. I asked my coaching client to reflect on his “why” for leading. In our next coaching session, he was bubbly.

He has found new energy. He reminded himself why he started the journey and why he needed to pick himself up and continue the journey. 

Find resources for inspiration:As the conversation progressed, Mandela also shared examples of how leaders must find inspiration in their dark moments.

Mandela found inspiration in the poem by William Ernest Henley titled Invictus. He shared that reading the poem had encouraged him in his very dark moments.

He told Francios that “it helped me to stand when all I wanted to do was to lie down." He also spoke of places he visited that inspired him.

We see this strategy being used by other leaders including Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King visited Ghana on the eve of independence to celebrate with Ghana. When Dr. King was asked how he felt as he watched the birth of a new nation, he said, “it renews my conviction in the ultimate triumph of justice.”

It’s said that the sermon he preached after his visit to Ghana was a prelude to the famous “I Have A Dream" speech. It was important that he put himself in situations that encouraged him to keep going despite the challenges of the moment.

Several leaders have used images and quotes of wisdom to inspire their progress, and Mandela did the same. “Hanging on the walls of the house, I had pictures of Roosevelt, Churchill… Gandhi,” Mandela said.

Using the insights from the conversation, Pienaar set out to find his sources of inspiration and leadership wisdom to guide his journey. 

He accepted that leadership comes with challenges. He reflected regularly on his leadership and reminded himself of the reason for his leadership - to unite a nation through Rugby. At the end of the day, both leaders had something celebrate. 

The iconic image of Mandela presenting the World Cup trophy to Pienaar represents how leaders can triumph in difficult situations in sports and in life. Leaders on African continent can take inspiration from this famous win and the journey of the current captain of the Springbok team, Siya Kolisi (who has won the rugby World Cup twice). 

The inspiration should cause us to lead in ways that bring peace and prosperity to this beautiful continent of Africa. It can be done. 

… of good cheer!

The writer is the Founder of the CEO Accelerator Program and Chief Learning Strategist at TEMPLE Advisory. He specializes in leadership development, executive coaching and strategy consulting.

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