It is hard for leaders to think clearly these days. The world is such a noisy place jam-packed with first thoughts.
First thoughts are rarely our best thoughts. They are often negative, primed by our brains' threat detection system.
First thoughts uncover the dangers lurking on the horizon but overlook the opportunities nearby. To meet these dangers well, we cannot indulge our first thoughts. We need to calm ourselves down and find new perspectives.
As a leader, I have been taught to be cautious about first thoughts. Sometimes they are a helpful starting point, a barometer of how I might feel. Other times, they are lazy prejudices slinking through my brain looking for a comfy corner.
I try to treat first thoughts like a scientist, sceptically measuring each proposition before deciding on the results. And I'll accept those results if they are rigorous, evidence based, kind and hopeful.
Social media is a rough landscape inhabited by first thoughts, strong positions, and strong feelings. The outrage of social media sounds like an angry email sent prematurely and later regretted. Much better to sleep on those and respond when you've calmed down.
I am a much bigger fan of second thoughts – these are thoughts slowly cooked and respectfully digested. These thoughts are much harder to come by and when you catch hold of them, they are heavy and dependable like the weight of an anchor. You can trust these thoughts when the storm comes. They will secure you to a foundation and you will arrive out the other side intact.
I know this year will be challenging. We are realistic about the difficulties of dealing with COVID-19 and its ramifications. As a leader, I have tried to invest in second thoughts. To do this, I have actively made use of my mental pause button to free up some time. Faced with a challenge, I hit pause on my first thoughts. I take my time and consider the situation from multi perspectives.
What does this look like from 30,000 feet, when I stand in another's shoes, in 24 hours’ time, in ten years from now? Is there another way to see this? Has anyone experienced it before?
Instead of reacting to an issue like an automated machine, I try to respond to it like a human. And I aim to respond in a way that aligns with values that represent the best in me and my organisation. Once I have been able to choose a response to the world that resonates with the best in what I represent, I press play. In challenging times, I repeat this process, pause, and play, as many times as I can. I have found that the pause button can last two seconds, two hours or two weeks.
I know that 2022 is preparing some curve balls and we can rise to the occasion. We are not the first to face such challenges. The last century staged world wars, The Great Depression, pandemics, natural disasters, and mass inequality. Resources were often thin on the ground and creatures comforts non-existent. Our forebears faced these challenges courageously and left a legacy and many comforts that we inherited.
Our first thoughts are that we fear for our students. But challenge can help them leverage their strengths. They are more resilient than we think. Our teachers are creative, they are constantly thinking of clever ways to keep students engaged. What will they come up with that will be a bonus for students?
I am excited and optimistic about 2022 because I feel comfortable that I have the tools and people to address the challenges it represents. Now, more than ever, I believe it is important for young people to hear messages of hope and to understand that a pause button, a dash of courage and a positive mindset are powerful tools that we can yield in challenging times.