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Saturday, July 13, 2024

LEADING WITH CHARACTER: Sustaining Wellness

It’s an ever more complicated world, and that creates concern in the workplace and at home about how to balance requirements. People are under a lot of pressure to excel in both domains, which often leads to physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual exhaustion. And we tend to think about success in terms of what a person has done—they got a big promotion or sales contract at work, finished a marathon, passed an exam. But I believe a person’s success is also about but who they are—a loving parent, a leader of character, one who takes care of others. So, how does one find that optimal balance? 

Finding Balance to Sustain Wellness 

Finding balance is hard, and human nature often leads people to overwork in pursuit of their goals and objectives, particularly if they feel pressure to “have it all.” The ancient philosophers, whose wisdom remains relevant, have a lesson to share about balance. Aristotle proposed the concept of the “golden mean,” which is the desirable middle between the extremes of excess and deficiency. While working too hard can result in the undesirable outcome of exhaustion, not working hard enough can result in the equally undesirable outcome of idleness. Today, we see both extremes in society. Each can adversely impact wellness, particularly when it comes to mental health.  

Balance, in the context of managing physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness, is the result of moderation in all one’s efforts to achieve the ideal blend—of worklife/homelife, and of what you do/who you are. Sustaining a healthy balance requires ongoing effort, shifting focus as necessary between the four components of wellness. For instance, a person emotionally depleted from a contentious personal relationship may seek spiritual renewal. Another who is mentally depleted from a surge of effort at work may find balance through physical exercise. 

Finding the golden mean is difficult because people fail to recognize when adjustments are needed to avoid exhaustion. They must possess the emotional intelligence to understand the causes and effects of their exhaustion on themselves, their co-workers, and their families.  

Techniques to Achieve Wellness

Techniques I’ve used to achieve the golden mean of wellness include: 

  • Create energy by trying something new; master a piece of music, write a poem, cook a different dish, or start a workout routine 
  • Engage in sensory stress relief through aromatherapy, mood lighting, relaxing music, massage therapy, a warm bath, or better yet, a combination of these 
  • Connect with another person by making a new acquaintance or reaching out to check in with a friend or relative 
  • Make a list of desired activities, then schedule them to be sure recreation is prioritized 
  • Acknowledge that most taxing situations are temporary and will come to an end by taking one day at a time 
  • Practice mindfulness, which involves finding inner peace 

Of all the above, I’ve found practicing mindfulness to be the most beneficial in balancing priorities. The discipline of willing oneself to return to the present moment with a spirit of contentment is the essence of mindfulness. It means living a satisfying life by focusing on the positive and refusing to dwell on the past or worry about the future. It means getting more in touch with who you are, instead of what you’ve done. To that end, mindfulness is a powerful tool, as I learned while serving as commanding officer of the 210-foot Coast Guard cutter Reliance following the terrorist attacks of 9-11.  

A Three-Legged Stool 

It was an incredibly stressful time; the ship was ordered to patrol for six weeks on end off the entrance to New York harbor. We were directed to board as many merchant vessels as possible to check for threats, like an explosive device, that could be brought in by sea. There was no “drill card” or playbook for this new mission. We felt pressure to do as much activity as we could, equating the effort put in with the safety of New York city.  

After a few months operating at a break-neck pace, I took a few days off to visit a local wellness spa. There, I engaged in yoga as a mindfulness activity for stress management. I found solace in the deep, steady breathing and focusing on the present. Holding each pose for a set amount of time demanded a level of concentration that kept the stressful thoughts at bay. That yoga practice introduced me to a sturdy three-legged “wellness stool” model that I call the “mind-body-spirit” stool. It fosters physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual strength and resilience and has helped me balance my priorities to achieve wellness over the years. 

Back onboard the cutter Reliance, I used the three-legged stool analogy to help find balance among the competing mission demands during the months following the terrorist attacks. The crew was stressed and frustrated. No matter how hard they worked, they couldn’t accomplish everything that needed to get done while underway on patrol. Exhaustion, a huge risk factor, began to emerge. 

Based on my newfound experience with mindfulness, I mustered the crew and talked about balance. I let them know we needed to accept the fact we wouldn’t be able to do everything in a twenty-four-hour day. I wasn’t going to put that pressure on them. From thenceforward, we were going to balance the three priorities needed to succeed in our mission: operations, training, and crew rest. 

The crew rest component of that three-legged stool was critical, as that was the one most likely to be pushed aside and to slip out of balance. There would be days when operations dominated, during a high-interest vessel boarding, for instance. In those cases, the next day would include the crew rest needed to recover. Planned training would be rescheduled, if necessary. By focusing on the balance between the three priorities, instead of trying to maximize each one every day, we succeeded in achieving and sustaining the crew wellness needed to perform during six grueling weeks of high operating tempo at sea. And, equally as important, when the patrol ended, the crew was prepared to return home with the well-being needed to integrate back into family life. 

Getting back to who you are versus what you’ve done…those striving to find the balance to sustain wellness should first pause to look beyond the tyranny of the present and reflect on what’s most important in the long run. A few years ago, I attended a moving memorial service held during my Kellogg business school twenty-fifth reunion. We had the privilege of honoring and eulogizing classmates who had passed away. Every speaker focused on the character, values and virtues which defined the individual, even after death. 

When the service ended, the audience remained silent. Everyone contemplated the monumental difference between “resume virtues,” which seem so important while people are alive, and “eulogy virtues.” We palpably perceived that eulogy virtues are, in the long run, what matters. Focusing on the character, values, and virtues for which you hope to be remembered (who you are versus what you’ve done) may help you achieve the balance Aristotle presented through the golden mean. 

To address the challenges posed by a more complex world, leaders of character must learn how to recognize physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion in themselves and others. Helping members of the workforce manage exhaustion and achieve wellness is becoming an increasingly important requirement for a leader. Discovering balance through the principle of the golden mean will help leaders of character manage stress and sustain a healthy state of wellness for themselves and their people. 

Look in the mirror. As a leader, do you help people achieve wellness by finding the balance, or blend, between who they are and what they’ve done? 

Please join me again in two weeks for more on Leading with Character. 

If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, and sign up for my mailing list: https://sandrastosz.com/book/breaking-ice-and-breaking-glass/ 

author avatar
Sandra L. Stosz
Vice Admiral Stosz, a Homeland Security Today editorial board member, started out in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign serving on polar icebreakers, conducting national security missions from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her 40-year career is filled with leadership lessons gleaned while breaking ice and breaking glass as the first woman to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes and to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy. She finished her career as the first woman assigned as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, directing one of the Coast Guard’s largest enterprises. She has lectured widely on leadership, and has been featured on CSPAN and other media outlets. In 2012, Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” named Vice Admiral Stosz to their list of 150 Women who Shake the World. Proceeds from “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters” will be donated to the US Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership.
Sandra L. Stosz
Sandra L. Stosz
Vice Admiral Stosz, a Homeland Security Today editorial board member, started out in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign serving on polar icebreakers, conducting national security missions from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her 40-year career is filled with leadership lessons gleaned while breaking ice and breaking glass as the first woman to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes and to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy. She finished her career as the first woman assigned as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, directing one of the Coast Guard’s largest enterprises. She has lectured widely on leadership, and has been featured on CSPAN and other media outlets. In 2012, Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” named Vice Admiral Stosz to their list of 150 Women who Shake the World. Proceeds from “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters” will be donated to the US Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. What is most interesting in what you write here is that the stress you had when on the Reliance was real stress in which other lives were at stake, unlike the everyday stress that most experience. Thus, it was good practice to handle the stress of everyday life aand all stress has consequences on Others. Yes, you did find mindfulness and, in many ways, this is reflective of the writings of Krishnamurti who basically says that all problems come from the mind; he states that “the conscious mind must be still and not everlastingly occupied.” This is quite to the contrary of our educational system in the digital world. In other words, you did not let the mind take control of your command but rather saw it from a distance while reflecting on the Others whom you commanded.

    You also give some good techniques to do for achieving a balanced mind/psyche, but I would like to add something more: to read a book from cover to cover without a cell phone or laptop nearby, that is while reading the book. Books are becoming antiquated in our society of distraction. To read a good book is a form of focus and meditation and and sets a good example for the younger among us, as well as the older.
    –Herman Haluza, San Francisco

  2. Thank you, Herman. I absolutely agree about the restorative power of a good book – and I’m talking about a book you hold in your hands, not a digital version. When you hold a book in your hands, you engage almost every sense. In addition to seeing the words, you touch the pages, feeling the thickness of the paper; you smell either the newness or the mustiness; you hear the turning of the pages and you hear the world around you. Perhaps there’s a bird chirping outside the window, or soothing music in the background. I agree, there’s almost nothing as relaxing as “losing yourself” in a good book. I’m sorry to have neglected that technique for achieving wellness!

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