Weekly Thoughts

‘CARER’ Leadership in a pandemic

By Rick James

Leading during a pandemic is incredibly tough. People are worried and uncertain, so their brains are reacting neurologically to a high threat response. I find this acronym CARER (from Jon Pratlett) helpful in thinking about how we might lead:

Certainty – Strive to create certainty, wherever possible – even in minor ways. “When you give people any information at all, it activates the reward networks in the brain because the brain craves information. Any kind of ambiguity, on the flipside, creates a threat response.”  

Autonomy – At a time of uncertainty, try and offer unexpected autonomy and flexibility. Even giving people the option of choosing a time for their performance review might reduce some threat!

Relatedness (Belonging) – humans are social beings. So as leaders, “if we take a genuine interest in our people, in who they are, what’s going on at home, increases empathy and understanding and encourages effectiveness in spite of the virtual environment.”

Equity – At times of uncertainty, we need a sense of fairness in how we and others are treated. Some people will be more productive virtually, others will be less (those with home-schooling or caring responsibilities for example). Watch out for a ‘crisis of fairness’. 

Recognition – Working virtually we need recognition more than ever at the moment. We need to feel appreciated and listened to. Also when giving feedback remember that people are especially sensitive right now.

As you look to the week ahead, consider what one or two things you could do differently to increase CARER amongst the people you work with.

Become tech savvy

By Rick James

With virtual teams, you need technology to connect. So to lead well today you have to become very comfortable with technology. If you are too old for technology, then you may be too old to lead in a digital age. You don’t have to become a geek, but at least work closely with one! Consciously push yourself to learn more.

You will need to learn what technology works best and use it appropriately. Some great collaborative software exists, whether Miro, Mural, or Google Jamboards. But keep your virtual meetings short and sweet. There’s plenty of research that says that after 50-minutes our brains need a break for a few minutes (and not to catch up on emails!). Otherwise people’s productivity will fall and boredom will rise. 

It is also about using the right technology to set the tone. We have an excess of technology at our disposal. Different methods like email, phone, Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp, or Slack work better for different purposes. As Ecclesiastes would say, there’s a time and a place for each mode of communication, so chose carefully how you communicate.

This week, what new technology could you learn to enhance your leadership?

A future not our own

Last week was the anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Romero, shot in the Cathedral in San Salvador in 1980, while in the midst of preaching against violence and repression. I often return to this amazing poem written for his funeral. It is a good reminder at Easter of who we are and what our contribution is.


A prayer at the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision. 

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us. 

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything. 

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. 

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. 

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Dealing with my stress and burnout

By Stanley Arumugam

In this time of COVID-19, many people are experiencing severe work stress and, for some, leading to burnout. It’s easy to be deceived into accepting remote working as ‘the new normal’ as work without boundaries, being available 24/7 and accepting that it’s OK not to take a regular break. This way of working is not sustainable. 

A few years ago, I experienced the severity of overwhelming work demands, a non-stop schedule that exhausted me both mentally and physically, as I capture in my poem below. Here also are some tips that work for me:

  1. Start the day with a time of quiet: meditation, prayer, journaling 
  2. Engage in some physical activity: making coffee counts, as does stretching, walking around your neighbourhood 
  3. Take regular breaks in the day: morning, afternoon and especially a lunch break 
  4. After every task/assignment, step away from your computer after every task/assignment: give yourself a sense of closure, completeness. I wash dishes as a break from my cerebral activities
  5. Make time for your family: spend quality time in the day; having a regular ritual can be helpful
  6. Stay connected with your team at a personal level: set up a virtual check-in or chat 
  7. Doodle: as you sit through long and sometimes dull meetings, release your creativity which can help your engaging  
  8. Be kind in your on-line communication: quickly discharged emails ‘on the go’ create a boomerang effect which can spoil your day
  9. Listen to music as you get through the day: whatever keeps you joyful 
  10. Examen: I use a contemplative prayer at the end of most days to review my day: what am I grateful for and imagine my day tomorrow focusing on intentional moments of love and joy

This week:

  • Which of these am I already doing?
  • Are there any others which might be helpful to try?

Life as a checklist

By Stanley Arumugam

I love checklists. On my desk, I have task lists for the day and the week ahead. On my wall is my yearly calendar with medium to long term tasks. My mobile phone gets in on the act with notifications and reminders. I like checklists because they remind me of the things to do. When we tick off a task, our brains release a feel-good achievement chemical, which can become workaholism addiction. I’m aware that checklists can quickly take over control and dictate my life’s rhythm. 

Steven Covey introduced us to the Urgent and Important time matrix. Checklists are useful for highlighting urgent task (Chronos time). But the more critical assignments in our lives mostly do not work according to task checklists. They are based on Kairos timing, which is connected to deeper purpose and seasons in our lives. Sometimes, they might even be an interruption to our logical plans. We need discernment, a spiritual sense of knowing, when to do what is right, and the best time. Discernment requires patience and giving up control, inviting us into a place of intuition and deep rest. 

As former US President Eisenhower said, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”

  •  What is most important to me this week in my various life roles?
  • How will I create space for unexpected, essential things?

Leading with love

By Stanley Arumugam

Good leaders love their teams. It feels almost sacrilegious to connect work, leadership and love. Somehow we have been socialised to believe love stays outside the workplace. The Sufi poet, Kahlil Gibran, teaches us that ‘work is love made visible’. 

To some extent, the industrial revolution commoditised people and sanitised any emotion in the workplace. They become an object in a big machine. We talk about system, process and results and lose the people. Yet we know that every person coming to work is looking for an expression of love and a sense of belonging, which is our primary need. In the absence of loving workplaces, we have corporate toxicity, abuse and burnout. We can show workplace love in some practical ways: daily/weekly check-in with staff; paying full attention when speaking to staff, especially with distracting technology; giving open, honest feedback in a kind and constructive manner and being open to receiving feedback as leaders. All of our corporate wellness, diversity, inclusion and development programmes can be leveraged for good when intentionally grounded in love. 

The Forbes article, Leading With Love: An Unconventional Approach To Leadership, seeks to balance professionalism and caring. “With the right boundaries intact, showing genuine concern or compassion for the people you lead will not diminish your respectability or reputation as a strong leader, but it will instead bring out the best in them while fostering an environment that is conducive to thriving…Showing love is not a license for your team to be incompetent. Instead, it conveys that their job performance is not the only thing that matters to you as a leader. They matter too.”

This week, how practically might I lead with love?

Leading with hope

This visual is a simplified version adapted from a webinar that Space for Grace facilitated on the 22nd of January 2021 for leaders of Swedish agencies supported by SMC – Faith in Development.

Maintaining your sleepers

By Stanley Arumugam

I am continually impressed with the creativity and rigour of engineering. Railways, for example, provide a critical backbone infrastructure to moving freight in many countries and also passengers in some. The hundreds and thousands of kilometres of railway track are precisely ‘tied’ together with heavy support structures underneath called ‘sleepers’. These rectangular blocks are laid perpendicular to the rails and serve critical purposes:

  • transferring the energy/load to the rail tracks;
  • holding the rails upright and steady;
  • keeping the tracks correctly spaced to the right gauge;
  • in case of derailment, if they have been properly maintained, sleepers can keep the wheels running preventing massive damage.

The distance and durability of railway lines depend on the strength of sleepers.  Railway sleepers need regular checking and maintenance.

This week I ask myself:

  • What are the sleepers in my life?
  • How could I check on my sleepers this week and give them some maintenance?

Start to Finish

By Stanley Arumugam

Today is my grandniece’s first day at big school. This week was a new start for many children – a new grade, a new school and a new way of being in school. At the start of the year, parents and family have big dreams for their children – seeing the finishing line already in their minds. For their children, especially the little ones – getting through the day is a big enough challenge. 

In a world of work consumed with results, deliverables and outcomes, we can easily be fixated on the end product and lose the joy of the moment. As a manager myself, I am socialised to look out for milestones, progress reports and board submissions—the measure of my work and sometimes my worth tied up in my place at the finish line.  

Finish lines are essential as a destination point, as a beacon of direction providing a sense of purpose. But getting to the finish line first, as if life was a sprint, is foolish. It steals the joy of being in the present. One of my trauma clients reminded me that the Covid-related death of both her parents, within a month, has slowed her down. Now she is being intentional about stopping and smelling the roses that her parents planted in her garden.

  • What roses are you missing when you are so focused on the finish line?