Ep. 7 – The Secret Sauce of Resilient Leaders: Three Ingredients of Leading Well During Disruptive Change


In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore the three ingredients that go into being a Resilient Leaders. Whether you are a CEO, a manager, or a frontline supervisor, practicing these three things on a daily basis will enable you to stand apart from the emotional pressures of the day and influence others in extraordinary ways.



Don’t forget to check out my You Tube channel with new videos every Wednesday on emotional intelligence, resilience, and leadership.

Check out Irvine’s new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub.

Check out Bridgette’s book which she co-authored with Bod Duggan  Resilient Leadership 2.0.

And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources some of which are mentioned in each episode. 


Welcome everybody to the Resilient Leadership podcast, where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you to lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction. And my name is Bridgette Theurer and I am joined by the wonderful Irvine Nugent. Irvine how are you?

Irvine: I’m doing great today, Bridgette. Thank you so much. How about yourself?

Bridgette: I’m doing very, very well. You ready to dive into the secret sauce?

Irvine: I am. I’m ready for some cooking today and exploring the secret sauce. Sounds good. You’re just making me hungry, just thinking about it.

Bridgette: Okay, so we’re calling it secret. Why are we saying it’s a secret sauce?

Irvine: Great question. I think we call it secret because when it comes to thinking about what you need to be a great leader, especially in times of anxiety or disruption or perhaps leading a new activity or putting yourself on the line, or just even thinking in the last two years leading through the kind of disruption, what comes to mind first is not necessarily what we’re going to talk about. And I think that’s why we’re calling it secret because it lies, I think, below the surface and is not initially obvious.

Bridgette: Yes.

Irvine: Maybe we should put the listeners out of their curious minds, although we just talked about curiosity last time. But what are some of those secrets and why are they important?

Bridgette: Yeah. Okay. So here they are. And you know what I love about them is they’re so easy to remember because they each begin with the word stay. So the secret sauce is during times of disruptive change and you’re leading it, stay calm, stay the course, and stay connected. Now that sounds a lot simpler than it is. So we’re going to unpack what those mean and what they look like. But the bottom line is that any anxious family, team or organization craves a well differentiated leader and Murray Bowen was the scientists that really came up with term self-differentiated person and then Ed Friedman, his protege applied it to leadership.

So self-differentiated leaders are like self-differentiated companies. Companies that are well differentiated stand apart from their competition. Like they know who they are and they have clarity around it and they have consistency around that messaging and well differentiated leaders are the same. They know who they are. They act in ways that are very consistent with that understanding of self. What that looks like in action though, is sometimes a little bit murky So that’s why we’ve got these three secret ingredients so we’re going unpack each one of them. So let’s start with the first one and Irvine, before you unpack what it means to stay calm. I just want to remind or tell our listeners that these three ingredients go into making up the leadership sauce, they’re not separate discreet activities. It’s not like that. But to talk about them, we’re going pull them apart, but they’re really practiced all together. So Irvine, what is this notion, this ingredient of staying calm? What’s that about?

Irvine: So when we look at staying calm, what’s interesting about that, we want to further break it down into two elements and that is when we mean stay calm, we want to embody that calmness and we want to communicate it. So when you think about it, someone can say, try and remain very calm and talk very calmly, but we know just from the energy, we’re feeling that the last thing they are is calm. And so therefore that’s why it’s important that this embodiment. So first of all, that means that the leader or the parent or the team leader have done some work. They have first of all, looked inside and recognize their own anxiety, recognize their tendency, their reactions in this moment, and they have calmed themselves down. They have taken action to swap around the anxiety with a calmness, and then from that comes the communication of that calmness.

And the communication of that calmness is there’s this calming effect on the whole system. You made reference to Murry Bowen, and one of the, the things that came out in some of the research was that when one person, one self-differentiated person is calm, it impacts not just themselves, but it impacts the whole system. So we talked a little bit about emotional contagion before, there is a little contagion going on here and this calmness is caught by other people and it impacts the whole system.

Bridgette: Oh yeah. In ways that we cannot fully appreciate and so a calm presence is felt even by parts of the system that aren’t directly connected to you. Which is interesting because that’s how systems work.

Irvine: Yeah absolutely.

Friedman was the protege of Murray Bowen and I believe he was the one that coined the term be a step down transformer. And I remember the first time I heard that I was like, bing, bing, bing, bing. That is such a useful metaphor for what we’re talking about when we say stay calm, because what we do not mean is that you’re always in a zen-like state. Free of passion, free of emotion, no, no, no, no, no. That’s not what we mean. We’re talking about being more thoughtful and we’re talking about being less reactive. But Irvine, share with folks, this notion of what a step down transformer is.

Irvine: I remember just like you, it kind of went a bing, bing, bing, bing for me but one of the images that came up was actually when I was younger and traveling to the US for the first time. I remember I went with my sister and my sister forgot her hair dryer and so she bought one here in the States and then went back home to Ireland, plugged it in and the sparks were flying. And so I learned in a very visceral way that voltage is different in different countries, and so this idea that if it was going to work, you needed a transformer. And so, really in life a transformer is, is able to drive up or down voltage, and so this step down, so I love this image because in any situation where there is anxiety, there is energy. We think about it as energy.

And what a leader is able to do is to take some of that energy and act as a stepped on transformer, to bring down some of the anxiety and to help to calm in this nervous system. And just as you said, that’s not just someone walking in and going and umm, and acting, this is really about someone who’s able to focus on the facts, someone who is to bring clarity sometimes, when there’s a lot of confusion, someone…. one of the things that happened, we talked about it before is that we’ve some over-functioning or maybe under-functioning and so this person’s able to clarify what are the roles, what the responsibilities, what should people be doing. And they’re able to, I think, create a vision, which is longer term.

So one of the things, when we’re in crisis mode, we can only think of the here and now, and so they’re able to bring a longer term. And then the other thing which I think is great is that I think there’s humour around it as well because one of the things that happens when there’s so much anxiety, everything so serious. And I think there’s a little bit of levelity there, and they’re able to kind of to joke a little bit to bring humour, to make a little lightness of something that can be very heavy.

Bridgett: Yeah. Even in like a really tense moment, and even just realizing that we can’t take ourselves too seriously, even if we’re involved in a serious endeavour, because as soon as we start doing that, laughter is gone. Again, one of the signs of a highly anxious team or family is they’ve lost the ability to laugh. You seem like you have a really good sense of humour to me, I’ve always experienced you that way and I would say there’s a light-heartedness about you. Do you think that’s true?

Irvine: Oh, absolutely. Yes. And I think many people know that I grew up in Northern Ireland. I grew up in the midst of conflict and tension and sides pulling themselves apart and Northern Ireland is known for great humour. And I think there is this ability to interject humour in the midst of great tension as a way of relieving some of that anxiety. So I think it’s part of naturally came in my DNA, but it’s certainly something that I’ve used.

Bridgette: This is reminding me of a leader that I coached many years ago and he was very buttoned up and very professional and very serious. And I had learned this about him because I had met him a couple times and then he said the following thing to me, he said, in my family, I’m the funny guy. And I remember thinking you are. And he goes, yeah, everybody relies on me for jokes, everybody relies on me at the family gatherings to bring some lightness to it. And I was so curious about this. And so I asked him, I said, well, that is very interesting. Why don’t you bring that same light heartedness and playfulness to work? And I can’t remember if I told this story on another episode, but it’s so struck me.

He said, oh, I didn’t think it was appropriate to bring it to work. So then that had invited a conversation about the leader’s role in creating an environment in which everybody can do their best thinking. And people can’t do that if they’re jacked up really high on anxiety. So the leaders got to manage their own anxiety and then bring the anxiety level down in the group just enough for people to do their best thinking. And the good news is we don’t have to be free of anxiety, we just have to be a little bit less anxious than the people around us.

Irvine: And you know, Bridgette, that brings up to me an example of me of someone who really embodied, I saw doing that so well. I’m thinking of a membership organization and it had gone through really a tough couple of years. Membership was down, the leader was not doing a great job, some decisions were very poor, there was poor communication and you could just feel that tension in both the staff and the members. And then this person resigned, a new person came in as CEO, and I remember the first thing that I was struck by in the first communication message they sent out was just this beaming smile, which just communicated I want to be here.

I want to be here in the midst of this. I know it’s not easy, but I want to be here. The calmness just resonated even through the video. And there was a clarity and a consistency, they talked about some longer term goals, that this is going to come out. There was an ability to recognize things are not doing good but we’re in the midst of clarifying people’s roles, responsibilities, there was a humour there. It was almost an embodiment of just of what we’ve talked about. And in reality, you know, it took a while and that’s another thing I think for people to realize this is not an instant fix.

Bridgette: Oh no.

Irvine: But six months later, the visceral difference has been really interesting.

Bridgette: What a great example and yeah,  it’s not an instant fix and it’s an ongoing practice that we’re working on staying calm because as soon as we’ve figured out one situation, another one comes our way and people get anxious about that challenge, so it’s an ongoing practice of staying calm. And I liked how you said, we got to do our inside work because the first step towards being a less anxious presence is managing your own anxiety, and most people in leadership positions are there because they’re pretty good at staying calm but as long as you have a beating heart, anxiety affects you too. And when you say, or do something from an anxious place, and you’re not aware that you’re saying or doing it from an anxious place, that’s what really gets people set up on edge.

Irvine: Yeah, absolutely. So that’s our first ingredient. I think it’s time to introduce our second ingredient now, which we mentioned was staying the course. So, Bridgette, what do we mean by staying the course and why is it important?

Bridgette: So staying the course is about leading with conviction. And it’s sort of in contrast to what we were just talking about, this notion of dialling it down and bringing a lighter touch and focusing people on facts and making sure people see the longer term game and all that kind of stuff. Leading with conviction is about being bold. It’s about a willingness to take risks, it’s a willingness to be vulnerable because you know that when you do take a bold action or you take a risk or you take a tough stand, you’re probably going get some pushback and you’re going be vulnerable to failure, you’re going be vulnerable to ridicule, so do you have the emotional fortitude to do that?

And I think it’s also about making sure that instead of being driven by the emotional pressures of the day, you’re constantly returning to your principles that you’re making principle based decisions, not emotionally based decisions. Now let’s face it, we all make emotionally based decisions, we’re emotional beings, but it’s not the only driving force when you’re leading with conviction and you’re staying the course, you are clear about the principles upon which you are making those tough decisions and those tough calls. And I think t requires a fair amount of courage.

Irvine: Yeah. And it also strikes me again, staying the course sounds wonderful and easy and yet it’s hard. So I’m wondering, what do you think is the hardest part about that and the leaders that you’ve coached, what is the hardest part about leading with conviction?

Bridgette: I think it’s probably when you take that initial stand,  you gather your courage and you say, okay, I’m going tell them that we need to do this, or I’m going have this difficult conversation or I’m going to whatever, I’m going to speak up and you do it and then you get silence or you get somebody saying that’s not the right thing. When that pushback comes, can you hold your ground? Because it’s very easy to kind of have that initial tall spine, but then when the punch comes, we go like this, we collapse our spine. And that’s why it’s called stain the course, because it’s not the initial act it’s can we continue to stay the course in a principled way? And that’s what ed Friedman called the keys to the kingdom because any good leader will, at some point experience sabotage. And that’s because you’re disrupting the status quo and can you still lead well in the midst of that. What do you think…

Irvine: In many ways I think it’s to be expected. It’s not that I think that sabotage is kind of like some shock and surprise. It’s like when you take stands and you stay the course, this is to be expected. You are going to confront people who are just not with you.

Bridgette: It’s part of the job description but we don’t tell people that because maybe they wouldn’t take the job. It’s would you like this promotion? And by the way, you’re going to get hit with some sabotage.

Irvine: Yeah. So now what’s one thing that strikes me then Bridgette, is you take the stand you have some people who trying to sabotage or even the silence or else people push back, and part of it is staying the ground, but is there also a risk of going too far in other becoming so defensive? It strikes me you can become too rigid then. So Is there a balance in there or is there a danger of becoming too rigid?

Bridgette: Oh yeah, there totally is. It’s not about being rigid, so it’s not like my way or the highway. In other words, when we do take a clear stand or we make a tough decision or we decide to go in this direction, we have gathered input and we have really listened to people and we’ve been informed. So while we might not conform to everything, we’ve heard people know we’ve heard them. So that’s number one. Do people know you’ve heard them? And then I think you said the word defensive and that’s key. Do you have the capacity to take a tough stand or to share your opinion, particularly if you know it’s going disagree with other people without getting defensive and without needing to win? Like okay, you need to agree with me. Even leaders, you can’t will people to agree with you, you can’t will people to adopt your plan, doesn’t work. If it did, it would be a lot easier to be a leader.

Irvine: So then in that case, so if a leader sets out kind of a vision, et cetera, and the team don’t agree and there’s no meeting of the minds, where does that leave it? Where does that leave things? Where does leave the team?

Bridgette: Well, hopefully not everybody disagrees with you, but inevitably people will. And I think remembering that when you lead with conviction and you’re clear about where you stand, it invites other people to get clear about where they stand. Might not be with you, it might be kind of with you and they need just a little bit more encouragement to follow, that’s a good outcome. Because really what you want is people to be choosing to opt in or out of that decision of that plan, of that project, of that vision because you are so clear and you’ve invited input, and you’ve listened and they then decide, people are always deciding for themselves whether they will or won’t follow you. But you want them to decide earlier on and feel like they’re making the choice about that. Because ultimately you can’t necessarily win over everybody and nor do you have to. But you do have to be willing to clearly take stands and do it at the risk of displeasing others. And I don’t know about you Irvine, but that’s a muscle that I still have to build every day.

Irvine: Absolutely. As I reflect back in my years of leadership, one of the most difficult things that I had to manage

Bridgette: Yeah, because you’ve mentioned earlier on this podcast that you’re a pleaser. You want people to be happy. So I imagine a lot of people listening can relate to that and they’re in leadership positions.

Irvine: Yeah. And it brings up a point we made at the very beginning of the podcast. We said these are not separate ingredients.

Bridgette: That’s right.

Irvine: And so I found the staying calm very easy, but this particular ingredient was, was much more difficult for me.

Bridgette: Yeah. And I bet the next ingredient was easy for you too or easier. And that’s…

Irvine: Easier. Yes.

Bridgette: That’s the staying connected piece. Now, it is interesting what you can tell already is more in your wheelhouse and more challenging, but talk about what staying connected is and what it was like for you.

Irvine: Yeah. So it’s really interesting because the third one then is called staying connected. So we’ve talked about staying calm, staying the course, but at the same time as well as a leader, we have to stay connected to the people that we’re leading. And just think about it. If you’re in an organization, and a team, and a family where there is anxiety, real anxiety or people are being reactive, et cetera, that’s difficult to stay connected too. I’m thinking about, there was a team that I was on about five or six years ago and there was just a very anxious person who just everything. And I remember it was so difficult, I could feel my body wanting to move back because it was so difficult to stay connected, to be in that presence all the time.

And so therefore, as a leader as well, when there’s a lot of anxiety around it,  it is difficult to stay connected to that, to be open to it. Now, there’s a phrase that we use, there’s a balance here, and the balance we’re looking at is you want to be close enough to influence the situation, but distant enough to lead. And there’s a paradox there’s a polarity in that of staying connected because at the same time we want close, caring relationships, we want people to really feel that we are building trust and I mentioned there about that leader wanting to be there, that we want to be there. And so therefore, we want a closeness there, but we don’t want it too close because if it’s too close, you become so enmeshed, you become part of it, and you become part of the anxiety…

 Bridgette: A part of the gang, right?

Irvine: Yeah. You’re part of the gang. Yeah, absolutely. And then at the same time, we don’t want to be too distant where people see you as almost a little aloof and well, you say these nice things, but really you’re really not present with us, you really don’t care about us and so you’re really not connected to us. So there is a balance there, and with that, it’s nuanced. There’s not one right answer to this. It’s kind of measuring this as you go along.

Bridgette: And I’m thinking about how when you were leading and you mentioned there was that one highly anxious individual, and you went like this, you go back. Well, not only is the balance not static but it’s different for different stakeholders. So with that person, you were too distant. You withdrew as a way to manage your own anxiety but you might have been in perfect balance with other people on the team. So it’s a matter of checking in with ourselves to say, where am I striking that balance where I really am close enough that they know I care, they know I have their back, they know I’m present and accounted for, but they also know I am not one of the gang and they also can see me as a leader, apart from the group.

Irvine: And it strikes as well Bridgette, as well, there are patterns in our life and I know in general that situation I brought up was me kind of pulling back, but what is more common for me is that I do get involved. I do get enmeshed, and I think my tendency is because I’m so good at listening, I’m so good at connecting with people that people then will come to me, and for me, the difficult thing is really having that dividing line of creating a little bit distance. And I think it’s really important for us to reflect upon that, kind of look back at our example, when we’re in with people who are in situations of high anxiety, what is our tendency? Is there tendency to kind of want to push back? Or is there a tendency wanting to move in where we just become enmeshed in it?

Bridgette: And I think a lot of people listening could probably relate to either side of that. They can see that sometimes they withdraw, they distance themselves from anxious relationship systems and other people can probably relate to becoming enmeshed, to becoming part of, kind of just one big ball of anxiety together. At least we’re all in this together. We said at the beginning, this notion that these secret ingredients are what constitute being a well differentiated leader, a leader that stands apart. And I’m now remembering this example of a leader I worked with, she was managing a large hospital and a big city that was going through massive change. And when I say massive, it was on a scale that was just so significant that everybody was pissed off and everybody was anxious. From the people who, you know, came in and cleaned the hospital to the COO on up, and she was tasked with leading this change.

And a year after successfully shepherding them through phase one of this massive change, she was promoted two levels above that to an even bigger leadership responsibility that was systemwide. Now she was going to be managing several hospitals in a large system. And as I listened to her talk about that yearlong stent as a leader, I could hear it. You know what she was doing? She was staying calm, she was being thoughtful, she was managing her own anxiety, she was bringing focus and clarity and sometimes humour so that people could really think their way through. She was definitely staying the course, she made some difficult decisions, she was bold, she was brave, she was courageous, she was principled, and she definitely stayed connected even to a couple of people who tried to overthrow her. So I named her and I said, this is why they have reached out to you to promote you. So she definitely stood out from the crowd.

Irvine: I love that. I love that. That’s a wonderful example of the balance of all three as well. So Bridgette, before we close today, we always try and have a little practice. Have you a practice that might help us embody and think about these three ingredients?

Bridgette: Yeah. So Irvine, your creativity is rubbing off on me. And so I was trying to think of a practice that would be tied to this notion of secret sauce. And so here’s the idea that just like, if you were making a sauce for, let’s say guests for coming to dinner and you’re making a sauce and you’re putting all the ingredients in a bowl before you served it, you would taste it to check out like, do I need to pinch more of this or pinch more of that. It’s a taste test. Similarly, the practice we’re leaving with you is a taste test and it’s same two steps. So check in with yourself as a leader and think about these three, stay. Stay calm, stay the course, stay connected. And which one do you think right now, your team, your organization, your family needs more of from you. And then for the next three weeks, just very thoughtfully and very deliberately practice bringing more of that ingredient to the mix and see what happens. And then start it all over again and check in again and see which ingredient needs to be brought in a little bit more while they’re all three working together. Just like you said, Irvine, you knew which one at that point in time was the missing ingredient. Well, maybe you didn’t know then, but you know now. Great.

Irvine: Oh, I love that. I love that. So, I think that that’s what we’ve been talking about today. Those three ingredients. Stay calm, stay the course, stay connected, and to this ability to kind of know which one is needed a little bit more of. And so we want to thank you for listening us today. We’ve have been having some great feedback and you seem to be enjoy these episodes. As always, if you think someone could benefit from a particular message of an episode, please feel free to spread the word and to share the episode with them. In our next episode, we are going to examine charisma and the title of the episode is Busting the Charisma Myth. Bridgette, thank you so much for joining us today.

Bridgette: It was a pleasure as always.

Irvine: Thank you so much, and we will see you all in the next episode. Thanks everyone.

Bridgette: Take care.

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