This interview with Dr. Celine Vousden forms part of the Blue Diamond Post Lockdown Leadership Review.
We discuss what great leadership looks like, and how to practice self-leadership and leadership traits for career success.
In addition, we look at anticipated changes in working practices and key skills for success in the post-lockdown economy.
Melanie Coeshott (MC) – Good evening. I am here tonight with Dr. Celine Vousden. Tonight, we’re going to be talking about leadership as we have been with some of the other interviews.
Celine, tell me a little bit about what you do today and what have you done in the last decade or so of your career. How have you got here?
Dr. Celine Vousden (Dr. CV) – Thank you, Melanie. Thank you very much for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I currently work in a combination of roles. The background is that I have been a GP for the past decade. I’ve been working as a doctor in the NHS for the last 15 years. I’m also an occupational health doctor. Over the last few years, I’ve been branching out into corporate well-being and working in the private sector as a GP, but specifically looking at the wellness of the staff, and that’s the physical and emotional well-being. I also trained as a coach because it fascinates me with how the brain works. I have a strong passion and interest in neuroscience and understanding neuroscience and how we can apply that to our behavior and then create goals, and achievements, and how that also transforms into the workplace.
Currently, I’m bringing all those elements together – coaching, psychology, and neuroscience – to work as a well-being specialist, specifically around the subjects of stress and resilience. I do this through delivering training and also working with organizations to look at their strategies, to see how they can change or how we can co-create a culture that enables their people to thrive, optimize their potential and their well-being and flourish in the workplace. This is something that I’ve become very passionate about, and that’s slowly grown over the last few years.
MC – I can hear that passion when you’re talking about it, and that sounds fascinating. Your career path seems to be very interesting and varied and kind of knits in lots of different elements there so sounds like a really great combination.
Dr. CV – Interestingly, I think over the last decade or so, we’ve learned a lot more about how neuroscience applies to performance and how we operate, particularly in the sphere of work and how we can transpose and apply those elements to change our behavior and change our performance and flourish and thrive.
MC – During the course of your career along your different paths, I’m sure you’ve worked alongside some interesting people and some great leaders.
What does great leadership look like to you?
Dr. CV – Definitely, I’ve seen some examples of great leadership and some not-so-great, and it’s very interesting to juxtapose and compare and contrast the two.
Of the elements for me that really stand out, the key things are integrity, honesty, and having the courage to admit mistakes. For example, being able to leave their ego behind and show up quite transparently. That to me is a quality that will inspire confidence, and trust, and shows courageousness, courage, and authenticity.
Really having that integrity, allows others to trust and evokes trust and confidence from people. For example, recently when the CEO of Zoom, Eric Yuan, admitted that they had security issues very openly, and it was quite inspiring to see, “Absolutely, we made a mistake. I really messed up. This is what we’re going to do about it.” It was interesting to see how people reacted to that, and how that was held up as a great example of leadership. I think, historically perhaps, cultures have not been so open to admitting mistakes, but we’re increasingly realizing the importance of that and seeing more and more leaders demonstrating those qualities of integrity.
Other factors include:
Having focus and being connected with your vision and really being energized by that, because when the leader is able to so strongly and passionately connect with their vision, that imbues or infuses that kind of pattern and connection to the vision amongst other people, and that can be contagious. In a psychological phenomenon, that’s called emotional contagion or mimicry, but also, it’s very confidence-inspiring or instilling to see and witness a leader that’s so committed and connected to their vision and understands their “why”, as Simon Sinek would say.
Somebody that’s able to listen. For me, these soft skills are very important. I think thankfully, it’s gaining increasing recognition. Someone who’s able to support their people, listen to their people, and to all levels of the organization, to all people within the organization. To create some open space and safe spaces for that to happen so they can listen to people from every part of the organization, to understand what’s going on, to really get a sense of the pulse of the organization and what needs to change, how things are playing out, and whether the people are connected to the culture that that leader is wishing to create and co-create with his people.
I think that kind of cultivating a sense of belonging, identity, and connection to an organization’s really important from a psychological perspective and also a neuroscience perspective. We all operate, historically, from an evolutionary perspective. Social safety is an important, crucial aspect for us to not only survive but thrive as well. Without that social safety and sense of belonging, we can experience a threat and stress, which can then hamper our performance. Really fostering or creating a culture within a workplace that has that sense of belonging, so people are connected to the organization and the culture and they know what the values that they stand for, and are really connected with that.
A leader must trust and respect their people. I know we’ve spoken about this, I’ve got 2 children 3 and 5, and that’s been such an interesting journey in terms of my own self-awareness and self-development, but there are such parallels with parenting. The more you trust and respect and gently guide a child – I can really see that in the workplace too – the more you create a space, and you trust, and respect people around you and allow them to thrive and become their best potential self and create the conditions for them to do so, but not always recognizing what they’re doing wrong, but literally, trusting that they’ll find that way to grow and develop.
Emotional self-awareness is really key to me. A good leader is somebody who’s able to recognize the situations that allow them to thrive, to recognize when actually they may not be operating or performing at something. Peak performance is an area that I’m really interested in, and which factors perhaps may knock them off from that and how can they bring themselves back into their peak performance and flow state as some of the things.
And finally, one which is probably crucial right, just thinking of the current coronavirus pandemic that we’re experiencing is such an upturning of the world. It’s that ability to weather storms and rapidly adjust to a situation that can suddenly change and have the belief in self, the trust, however, they arrived at that decision, but understanding if they need to course-correct or when to dig deep, and trust, and commit to the vision, and having that decisiveness and knowledge, but that ability to weather storms is vitally important.
MC – Great, a number of really, really important traits. I’ve seen a lot of these traits in different people as well, so that’s great. You touched on self-awareness there and being in the best position to perform.
What do you interpret by the term self-leadership and how do you practice this?
Dr. CV – Self-leadership to me is about observing and managing ourselves essentially. It comprises various elements; awareness, self-awareness of how we show up, our drive, having a psychological understanding of ourselves, what can trigger us, which elements we need in order to thrive, our strengths, and our values. Having a greater understanding of self can inform us how we work, operate, and thrive in the workplace and what we need more of, and what we may need to develop more of.
It also encompasses the concept of emotional awareness or emotional intelligence as Daniel Goleman spoke extensively about. Recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses. In terms of how do I practice that? Personal development has been my hobby from a very young because I find it fascinating the fact that we are born babies, these potentials of malleable creatures. Our brains are fresh, ready to be imprinted and we’re shaped by the experiences that we have in childhood. We take on beliefs that are shown to us and modeled to us by our parents and other people around us. We grow up and that shapes how we view the world.
I find it fascinating that once you take on certain beliefs that perhaps limit you, the way the brain works is that you look for evidence to support that. How can you, therefore, expand that knowledge and that view of the world, how can you find beliefs that support you in order to move forward? Then more physiological measures too in terms of self-leadership, what do you need in order to rest and recuperate? This is sometimes the concept of when people may be working really intensely, but actually, from a brain and performance point of view, that’s not always necessarily going to give you your most creative, innovative, or effective results.
We need rest and recuperation. How do we recognize when we’re becoming too stressed, when do we need to dial things down, but also create enough conditions to have that kind of thriving element as well? Being aware physically and putting elements in place to support you, routines and rituals around that exercise or whatever it is that supports you.
These are some of my interpretations and things I do.
MC – I like the way you said that that was some kind of hobby that you’ve had for a long time because yes, I feel very similar. That’s a long journey that I’ve been on, and I’m continuing to be on. I think that’s great!
Working alongside people throughout your career in different guises.
What signs of leadership do you look for in others?
Dr. CV – The things that I deem to be important include that openness to change and explore, and not necessarily being a fully-formed leader as they are then, but somebody that clearly has self-awareness, is readily able to acknowledge their limitations and areas that they need to develop and any mistakes, etc. And a willingness and a hunger to learn as well. That to me is such a vital element. Being able to leave their ego at the door.
If something isn’t going right, it’s not a reflection of them, but perhaps what is it I need to change about the situation? I find that a very powerful mindset to have. To me, that demonstrates someone that is likely to go on to be able to be a good leader because they will find the conditions that they need in order to thrive rather than needing to have everything just right.
Somebody that can actually connect with others, whether this is natural or not, has cultivated that ability to connect with others, understand others, and build networks in that sense. I think that becomes quite clear.
How people operate, how they relate to others in the workplace, to me is an important aspect of their own performance, how they’re showing up in the workplace, what they perhaps need more of or less of, whether the work they’re doing is the right work for them. Somebody that demonstrates initiative in that sense or will speak up and say, “Actually, I’m looking at this but I thought how about this?” Someone that comes up with ideas and has curiosity, questions things, because that also is a vital element.
Humility and leaving the ego at the door and seeing potential in others is also core feature of a great leader.
Finally, it’s someone that doesn’t necessarily work all hours, is able to delegate, is able to have the balance in their home life and interests outside work, because that is vitally important for our creativity and how the brain works, and is able to have that balance as well and has managed to find that and doesn’t feel that need to always be working, interestingly.
MC – I think that’s an interesting point, and hopefully, we’re going to see more of that in the future as well.
Obviously, the world has changed a lot in the last two or three months since we’ve all been in lockdown. There have been a lot of changes in working practices during this time.
What kind of changes do you expect or what things do you think will stick with us into the future now?
Dr. CV – From my perspective, it’s been incredibly heartening to see that there is this attention to mental health and well-being and how it has impacted us. As a GP and occupational health doctor, I’ve always found it really saddening to see the stigmatized sensation that is really evident in society with regard to our emotional well-being and mental ill health or periods of mental health. To the extent that many patients I see are really experiencing quite significant symptoms, but wouldn’t ever dream of bringing it up in the workplace. That it’s not even a possibility for them to do so because that would impact how they work or how they’re perceived at work.
To me, there’s been a shift in people recognizing this, with people that didn’t necessarily have problems before with anxiety and depression experiencing it now. Interestingly, I’ve seen as well in my clinical practice, those that who have had problems are actually doing quite well in the current situation. Things have really turned on their head in that sense. I hope that’s going to continue forward.
I think that there’s a greater awareness for organizations that the need and the importance of really recognizing, measuring, looking at, and understanding the emotional well-being of their people, and seeing how that really can connect with how they show up at work, and importance I suppose of connecting together and understanding each other’s emotional well-being by perhaps asking more questions than they would have before.
That is one thing, but perhaps it is the acceptance that we are human and that we do experience times when things are frustrating, where our emotional well-being is just not in the place that we’d like it to be. That those ups and downs or significant mental health problems such as depression or anxiety are persisting for a while. I hope there’s going to be a greater acceptance of that and a greater understanding because actually when things are pushed away that they become more problematic, but when things are open and there’s a more open environment, then it’s easier to effect change and ride those storms a bit more. That’s one aspect.
Other things that I hope going forward will be that flexibility that we’ve rapidly had to adjust to in terms of how we work. Obviously, a lot of organizations to some extent were set up to offer working from home, but now suddenly, there’s a huge shift to everyone working from home. That’s been really phenomenal to watch, certainly in the occupational health field that I’m in, and actually in general practice as well. An organization like the NHS can often be quite slow, the cogs of change, the wheels of change, but we’ve seen how quickly things can shift.
Certainly, in the GP world, I can’t see that we’d ever go back fully to how things were before as there’s a much more efficient way of operating. I do hope that going forward as well and no doubt for the next couple of years, we’re going to have that much greater flexibility about working from home. There’s so much to say that can really support the well-being of an individual, and to me then that has a positive effect on their performance and many parameters.
That flexibility around how we work and when we work – because many of us have had to adjust to having children at home. Then there’s going to be a greater understanding that people can still deliver the work in the way that works for them, because why do we all have to fit into this very 9-6 box or whatever that might be? We’re all individuals, we all have our own individual differences in terms of how we work best, etc. Hopefully, more organizations will be more open to exploring that and understanding and finding mutual ways of working with that.
Some other ways I think things are going to change? I certainly think communication has become so vital. Particularly not having this physical ability to connect, to see people, and with rapid changes of so many policies, government changes, etc. The need for very clear synced communication is absolutely essential. Particularly when you’re not able to deliver that face-to-face if it has to be electronic. Communication is being challenged. How we all deal with change, can potentially be very stressful as it has been for many, but the more we learn to tolerate uncertainty and the more we learn to navigate change, the easier it will become and the more adept we become at managing that.
Ultimately, we know through evolution the world has slowly, through technology, been picking up the rate of change anyhow. We’re starting to adjust to that anyhow, but in adjusting to managing uncertainty and change, then also in doing that, we’ll employ skills that will allow us to build resilience and manage stress, which is something that’s going to take us forward no matter what for the future.
Those are some of the things I think I hope going forward.
How will you lead and manage yourself and others through this change?
Dr. CV – My work is often more consulting with people in leadership roles or through coaching or the stress and resilience work that I do. To consider it and the things that I’ve worked on with those individuals that I would apply to myself as well would be to really check in and connect with the team, with myself, and making that such a key element to understand what’s going on. What challenges are you facing? What do you need support with? How can I support you? Or simply, how are you today?
I suppose I’ve really fostered a stronger cohesive team and a greater understanding of each other in a way that perhaps wasn’t needed before because we all had our own lives. Now, we need that support even more because many of us are perhaps isolated. Particularly, if you are living alone, for example. Work has become even more of a lifeline and is a necessity for some, those strong, cohesive bonds. I also think that removing some of the hierarchies because you see somebody on a Zoom call that has mashed up banana on their shoulder or the child comes running in. I think that’s great actually because you see that human aspect. I think it’s going to be really hard to go back from that and that will only be a positive thing.
I guess I will lead and manage myself through being open, honest, accepting, and self-compassion, and realizing some things aren’t going as well as I’d hoped. That’s okay. Then understanding what I need in order to move forward, is how I would approach it for myself and exactly the same for my team. Some of the ways that we do this and then through building closer social connections with the team, understanding, and almost creating a family environment. I think that is a potentially real shift that will have come out from the situation if embraced.
MC – Yes, great.
What skills do you perceive to be the most important to help us manage through this period?
Dr. CV – As I mentioned earlier, that ability to navigate change and increase your tolerance to uncertainty because, from a brain perspective, we are wired to perceive change as a potential threat. It causes us to experience symptoms, such as stress, and that impacts how we think and reduces our creativity and how we make decisions.
The more we’re able to find a way to tolerate uncertainty the better we’ll cope. Because I think there is huge uncertainty about what’s going to happen over the next couple of years, whether a vaccine will be found or not, and what’s going to be the economic impact and fallout. There are so many factors to consider.
All that we can do is be aware of that moment, and what can we do to manage the moment, and have a vision in mind but be very aware that the situation may change. All we can do to cultivate an ability to remain agile, and change accordingly, adjust, and not be fixed to a particular outcome is going to be a vital skill, I think, in terms of flexibility.
Another is emotional regulation and that emotional self-awareness, because we will be experiencing a range of emotions through this period. As things change, we are going to have to adjust. We had a lot of that in the first month or so, that shock that many of us were experiencing – corona insomnia as it was called. That’s still going on for many, the anxiety, uncertainty. How can we learn to recognize the emotions that we’re feeling and how can we manage them and really becoming much more adept at dealing with our own emotional ups and downs and emotional experiences, This, for me, will be vital to master.
This current situation gives us an opportunity to learn how to do that, which can fuel the elements of great leadership. This is the opportunity to do that. Can we embrace that? To find effective ways of learning more about ourselves and how we manage our emotions? That’s not to stop or suppress them, but to accept and find ways to shift us back into a more helpful state that works for us. Learning how to manage stress because that is a key feature of what many of us are feeling, with that lack of control at the minute perhaps and the uncertainty that we’re experiencing. Cultivating resilience to see us through the next year, two years, as things go through.
Other elements will be communication as I mentioned before and how we communicate effectively with our teams. What springs to mind is the Airbnb CEO who sent out that really heartfelt letter to his staff and to the people explaining about how he unfortunately has to let some people go. It was so humbly written, and so you were able to recognize the values these people have brought. He was clearly very saddened by it, he was very open about that. That open, honest communication and vulnerability, I suppose, is one way of describing it. An empathy to really understand that we’re all going through a different experience, depending on our individual situations.
There’s many factors influencing what we’re currently experiencing. We may know somebody in our family that’s been affected by the virus, we may be experiencing financial difficulties, the strain at home, relationships under strain. I saw something like a 42% increase in inquiries about divorce. There’s so much going on. It’s important to really have empathy for our colleagues and the people around us. To understand that there’s a lot going on and that may be influencing how they are.
MC – Wow, lots of different things there. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us.
There are a lot of things there that I can relate to and that I could definitely envisage being really useful skills for the future, and the future starts now. Thank you so much for sharing and I look forward to speaking to you again soon.
Dr CV – Thank you so much for having me here, Melanie. Thank you.
Thanks to Dr Celine Vousden, Wellbeing specialist, GP and occupational health doctor with a special interest in stress and resilience.
Thanks for reading. Check out other Blue Diamond articles to help you take control of your work and life.
Check out the other interviews in the Post Lockdown Leadership Review series.