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Resilient and Adaptable Leadership During COVID-19

March 23, 2020 in

Authors: Jared Cohen and Haziel Bustillo, High Performance Coaches

Stress at work, like in life, is common and should be expected. However, stress is not inherently a bad thing. Rather, it is one of the primary mechanisms by which your physiology and psychology adapt in order to increase capacity to deal with future demands. This means that stress can be experienced whenever there is change, both good and bad. Hence, without adaptation there is no growth.

Today’s ever-changing work climate due to COVID-19 is producing stressors at all levels. Good leadership in times of stress can be defined by someone’s resiliency and adaptability to the stressors. Thankfully, with some deliberate thought and practice, stress management and leadership skills can be honed.

What is Stress?

Stress can be defined as a response to any type of change.1 Psychologically, you perceive being under stress when you believe that there are too many demands and not enough resources to handle the demands.2 Therefore, stress becomes problematic when it is chronic and viewed as insurmountable.

Managing your stress at work will depend on how well you can change your relationship to stress so that it becomes your fuel. Remember, you are perceiving stress because you believe that you do not have enough resources to cope with what is being demanded of you.  The solution is to recruit more resources to reduce those overwhelming feelings and accomplish what you need to.

Meeting a deadline is a good example:

  1. When meeting the demand of a tight deadline, attack the opportunity by first monitoring your belief and attitude about meeting the deadline.
  2. Second, map out a plan and put the plan into your calendar.
  3. Finally, work the plan with the belief that you can get it done.

At HigherEchelon, our Resilient and Adaptable Leader Program© (RAL) equips participants with the mental and emotional skills to thrive in the ever-changing climate of the modern workplace. The pace of technology and change has increased the demands on all of us to the point where there is the perception that we must be everywhere and know everything—all the time. Accordingly, this causes stress and anxiety, which leads to poor performance. And as the research indicates, poor performance leads to lower productivity—we know this.

To lead through these stressors and the compounding stressors of lower productivity, follow these steps taught in our RAL program to help you through.

Identify Your Stressor

In order to manage stress, you first need to understand what is stressing you. Is it work deadlines? Is it career advancement? Is it revenue expectations? Competing demands? Not getting along with your co-workers or boss? In our current environment of COVID-19, is it adjusting to a virtual business workplace?

Whatever your answer is, self-awareness and problem identification is the critical first step to effective management.

Breathe Deliberately

We all breathe. You are doing it now subconsciously. Deliberate breathing is different because you are consciously choosing to focus on your breathing in order to purposely control the cadence.

Instructions for practice:

  • Adopt a comfortable position that supports you being relaxed and awake
  • Set a timer for three minutes, so you don’t have to worry about how long it has been.
  • Close your eyes and try to keep your attention on your breath cadence as precisely as possible.
    • Inhale for four seconds
    • Hold your breath for two seconds at the top of the inhale
    • Exhale for four seconds
    • Pause for two seconds before beginning the next inhalation
  • Continue this cadence (4 in, 2 hold, 4 out, 2 hold) for the three minutes
  • If your mind wanders, NOTICE where it wandered to and then SHIFT your attention back to your breathing cadence without any judgment for having gotten distracted.
  • It is natural for your mind to get distracted; your goal is to notice that your mind is distracted and then shift your focus back to your breath.

This skill requires practice and has restorative benefits in helping you to cope with the overwhelming feelings associated with the many work “to-dos” that you are stressed out about.

Deliberate breathing can also give you greater emotional control and composure when you have a conflict or dispute with a coworker. It can even help you fall asleep quicker if the mind is preoccupied with thoughts/feeling about the past and future.

Monitor Your Thinking

Managing stress depends on how skilled you are in the awareness and regulation of your thoughts.  It is possible that your thoughts may restrict you, creating doubts about your work abilities. It is possible that your thoughts are reactive, or directly related to what just happened. Sometimes your thoughts can be random and if not held in check, these thoughts can lead you into an elaborate daydream which is keeping you from the task at hand.

Once you are aware of the thoughts that are restrictive, reactive, and random, you can choose thoughts that make stress more of a challenging opportunity than a threat. Think about thoughts that are purposeful, attached to something bigger than yourself and/or related to how you can accomplish the goal in front of you. Think about thoughts that are also productive. Is what you are telling yourself helping you to stay focused on what is in your control? Think about thoughts that evoke a sense of possibility or progress and give you a sense of confidence in your ability to complete a task.

You cannot control much of what happens at work. However, you can control your thoughts about how you appraise situations and assign causality to outcomes. Even if you cannot control your first thought, your odds are much greater in controlling the next thought. Therefore, next time your boss throws you an additional assignment or you get paired up for group work, do your best to develop a greater awareness of your thoughts and make them work for your benefit.

Partner with Us

You now have a greater understanding of what stress is, how it manifests, and how you can let stress fuel you instead of hold you back. Our Resilient and Adaptable Leader© program is here to support today’s current and emerging leaders during COVID-19. To learn more about how you can improve your performance and manage stress, contact HigherEchelon today!


  1. Weisinger, H., & Pawliw, J. P. (2015). Performing Under Pressure: The science of doing your best when it matters most. New York, NY: Crown Business.
  2. R S and Folkman, S, (1986). Cognitive theories of stress and the issue of circularity. In M H Appley and R Trumbull (Eds), (1986). Dynamics of Stress. Physiological, Psychological, and Social Perspectives (pp. 63–80). New York, NY: Plenum