How to Lead through Massive Disruption? P.A.C.E Yourself

Uncertainty. Complexity. Disruption. Unprecedented. Now more than ever. We’ve heard these phrases over and over again in the past months. As Thomas Friedman said in a recent NYT article, “We have never had a simultaneous global leadership stress test like this — one that is testing leaders from the schoolhouse to the White House and from city halls to corporate suites.” So we ask, what are some critical principles leaders can embody to navigate these challenges?

head-body-heartEmotional intelligence is essential for leaders whose communities are impacted by crises, whether interpersonal and small-scale or a widespread pandemic. Think of Emotional Intelligence (EI) as your internal toolkit, a collection of faculties you can develop that help you to understand and regulate yourself, and more skillfully manage and relate to others. Developing emotional intelligence equips leaders with reliable internal resources to exercise in times of increased complexity.

While we may want certainty and simplicity in the form of lists of things we can do, in actuality what we need is a new way of approaching and relating to what we do. Leaders need a way to PACE themselves to meet these needs in a resilient and sustainable way, since we’re in this and the unfolding implications for the long haul.

P.A.C.E is an acronym to describe mindfulness-based emotional intelligence concepts applied to leadership. At the Search Inside Yourself Institute, we use this acronym to mean emotionally intelligent leadership; we developed this framework in conjunction with Cecily Mak, a SIYLI Board member and a strategic advisor to a wide array of startups. We’ll describe the elements of PACE below, as well as some specific practices and prompts to build these skills.

Pause: Developing Awareness and Clarity

When navigating complexity, stress, and uncertainty, the first and most important step is to Pause before taking any action. Pausing in the moment downregulates the limbic and threat system, allowing us to both feel a greater sense of calm and get our executive functioning capacities back online. Pausing also allows us to increase awareness, and access more information (both internal and external) to gain clarity about the situation at hand, allowing us to respond more appropriately and effectively.

Integrate a pause easily into your day with a 3-breath “Head, Body, Heart Check-in” to create a moment of self-awareness, and to harness focus towards action:

  • On the first breath, check in with your head, what thoughts are present?
  • On the second breath, check in with the body, representing emotions, intuitions, or “gut feelings.” What emotions are present?
  • On the third breath, check in with the heart, representing values or intentions. What’s important right now? How do I hope to show up in this next moment?

In addition, pausing on a regular basis, in a more dedicated way, allows us to increase our awareness about our default and habitual reactions (and the underlying thoughts and emotions), and in turn we can get better at noticing when we’re being reactive. Being able to consciously recognize that we’re in a reactive state is the most important skill, and the first step, to be able to shift and get present, creating an effective state for leadership.

  • Body Scan practices help build a high-resolution awareness of what’s happening physiologically in our bodies, so we can have more insight into our emotions and behaviors.
  • Meditations like this Focused Attention [9 min], or start with a Shorter [3 min] practice, increase focus, clarity and calm. This also helps you build the skill of noticing when you’re distracted and then reorienting back to your object of attention; much like noticing when you’re in a reactive state and then reorienting back.

Pause allows us to build awareness and clarity both about our internal landscape and our external situation, so we have the information we need to make more informed, and deliberate, decisions.

Adapt: Be Agile and Resilient

This awareness allows us to shift out of autopilot, which means we can have a choice in how we respond, to be deliberate (both in what input we’re considering in our decisions, and how we’re using our attention towards action), and to have response flexibility: all elements of adaptability.

After pausing, you can engage in the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) but give particular focus to the observe and orient, which then allows you to decide and act more skillfully, by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What am I  aware of? Within you (thoughts, feeling, sensations) and Outside of you (situation, in another person, your environment)?
  • How am I relating to this?  Resistance or judgement? Fear or shame? Curiosity and compassion?
  • What mindset am I operating from? Eg Optimism/Pessimism, Fixed/Growth, Above/Below the Line

Agility is then being able to make this shift quickly. The more we practice building our awareness (through dedicated or in-the-moment practices like those above), the more quickly we can recognize when we’re in a reactive or automatic state, and then swiftly reorient to a more clear and deliberate state.

While agility is about adapting quickly, we also have to make sure we’re doing it in a way that is sustainable over a longer period; hence, PACE yourself. Pausing, and increasing our self-awareness, also allows us to take stock of our internal resources, allowing us to deploy them effectively and more efficiently, increasing our resilience and capacity to sustain effort. The other side to sustaining effort is avoiding burnout, and awareness helps us gauge when our resources are running low, so we can refuel before we burnout.

  • Gratitude helps us appreciate the things and people supporting us, which (re)fills our tank with deposits of positivity and appreciation
  • Self-compassion allows us to meet challenges and setbacks with care rather than criticism, and increases motivation to grow and improve.

Adapting also means being able to adjust in response to external information (not just managing our internal states/information) – this may be what is happening in the world, economy, society, but also includes taking in information that is being expressed (directly or indirectly) from within your organization, which leads to our third pillar of PACE: Communication.

Communicate: Connect and Build Trust

Effective communication depends on connection, and this is ultimately built on your capacity to be aware of your own internal states, which allows you to be more perceptive of what’s going on in others and in your surroundings. This is the foundation for empathy – understanding on both a cognitive and emotional level what others might be experiencing – which can inform what is needed for an appropriate response to the situation.

This requires an emphasis on the listening part of communication, to go deeper to try and hear what might be behind what someone is saying. Then when you speak, you can express a sense of understanding so that they feel heard and understood.

  • As you’re listening, check for the 3Ps of empathy: Am I present? Am I demonstrating patience? Have I taken perspective?

As you engage with those you work with, or you consider situations and decisions, step outside your perspective and imagine what they might be experiencing:

  • How might this be impacting them in their day to day personal and work lives?
  • What might they be thinking about or feeling?
  • What might they be needing in this situation?

Connection is also the foundation to building trust (and psychological safety) with your coworkers/peers/teams in order to get the input and buy-in you need to be a successful and effective leader. It increases their willingness to speak up, share, and ask questions that are important (if not essential) pieces of information that will inform your decisions AND when feeling heard and understood, it increases their receptivity to your decisions and actions as a leader.

Embody: Model the Way

People are looking to leaders to be well informed and communicate information clearly, transparently and authentically; to articulate a vision for navigating the current uncertainty and complexity; and to demonstrate clarity and stability, and instill hope.  The key here is that people are looking to you; they are looking for a model for how it’s okay or not okay to show up, to act, and to feel. While what you say as a leader is important, how you act is even more important.

Some call this the say-do ratio, that you’re walking the talk so to speak. As such, setting a clear intention for how you want to show up as a leader is important. This serves as a guide to orient you, and also, more importantly, is a marker to let you know when you’re misaligned and off course. In your intention, it’s also important to include what nourishes and recharges you, so you can sustain your capacity to show up in this way.

Intention: How do you want to show up? What sustains your capacity to show up in this way? 

We encourage you to think about what being a good leader means for you, in your unique context, and we want to strongly encourage compassion as one of these leadership qualities.  Compassion builds on empathy, and means that you’re not just feeling for and with, but that as you’re aware of suffering, you make effort, and make decisions and take actions, to relieve it.

Compassion Micropractice: What am I aware of? What is needed? What is of service now?

Lastly, compassion is not complete if it doesn’t include yourself, and we recommend building a self-compassion practice. Your capacity to do this for yourself allows you to do this for others, and at the same time research shows it increases motivation to correct mistakes and improve. Also, we could all use self-compassion as we get to know ourselves (and our habits, reactions, some of which we’re less proud of than others), which ultimately supports the initial skills of pausing and building awareness.

Author: Judith Harris, Engagement Manager, Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute

To learn more about how to PACE yourself as a leader, check out this video series from Rich Fernandez, CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute and learn more at

Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute

Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) was established in 2012 as an independent nonprofit organization. Since then, Search Inside Yourself has become a globally recognized program and SIYLI continues to work with Google, as well as other corporate, nonprofit and government organizations around the world.

We are a global community making mindfulness and emotional intelligence practical and accessible. Together, we’re working toward a more peaceful world in which all people feel connected and act with compassion.

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