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Guiding your team with Calm. Part 2: Being a Zen Master

In this next post of our series, we dive into arguably the most challenging skill for leaders to master: maintaining a Zen-like composure and shielding the team from chaos.

This ability, deeply related with our personality, plays a crucial role in guiding teams through ups and downs.

Spoiler alert: This is, in my experience, the most difficult skill to acquire, and it’s closely related to our personality traits. 

Balancing Realism with Optimism

As engineers, we often develop a sense of cynicism and skepticism. However, as leaders, it’s our responsibility to manage these tendencies, especially in team interactions.

Being a leader doesn’t mean being overly optimistic all the time, but it does require tempering our skeptical remarks while acknowledging the obstacles our projects may face.

Managing our reactions and maintaining calm are key leadership traits, as the team, consciously or subconsciously, looks to us to determine the severity of different situations.

What signals are they looking for? Confidence, nervousness, fear, happiness, or lack of enthusiasm.

Inspiring 24/7? 

It’s often said that leaders must inspire 24/7. In my opinion, this is an unrealistic and inhuman expectation. We all have good and bad days. The key, I believe, is to shield the team from chaos and pressure, preventing these from affecting everyone involved

Sometimes, this means withholding bad news or choosing the right moment to share them. Other times, it involves rolling up our sleeves to solve problems that the team doesn’t even need to know about, to prevent unnecessary anxiety or fear.

Why do I consider this one of the hardest skills? Because it’s common (at least for me) to get stressed about a problem and be vocal about it. Once the problem is solved, we move on as if nothing happened, often overlooking the emotional impact on others. The problem might be over for us, but how did the team feel watching us work 12-hour days, looking disheartened, nervous, or stressed? They likely felt fear rather than confidence.

My experience: turning adversity into an opportunity

I have plenty of examples where I mishandled such situations, but let me share a success story.

In my experience, across various companies, there have been instances where one of our clients was restructuring due to the need to reduce costs, and as a result, they would no longer require our services. This led to some people being left on the bench, creating a complicated situation.     

This is a situation that occurs in this industry and in software factories in particular, but it is still an unhappy and stressful situation, mainly for those affected, but also for the leaders of the organization, who have the responsibility to improve that situation.

As a Tech Leader, my role was closely tied to sales engineering, which involved swiftly analyzing leads and crafting proposals. These proposals were required to maintain the highest standards of quality, a benchmark we couldn’t compromise on.

On the other hand, it was also my responsibility to convey calm to the devs, (affected and unaffected) and to make the most of their bench time so that they were ready for their next challenge, training with courses and hands-on experience in projects.

These types of situations naturally generate stress or anxiety, when the work of others indirectly and proportionally depends on one’s actions. We cannot be robots and think “okay, new clients will appear,” it’s inhumane, and also, as I will explain in another article, for a leader “hope is not a strategy.”

However, this situation is part of the role, and it is a situation where it is key not to let that stress permeate the rest of the team, because fear and anxiety are contagious. Imagine having entered the bench and seeing that your leader, who has the responsibility to sell the technical capacity of the team, is frightened or stressed? What would you feel? Or even worse, imagine that the new clients detect that too.

There’s a song by a Uruguayan band that says “cuando todo parece jodido es cuando hay que poner” ( “when everything seems fucked up, that’s when you have to step up”), and so it was, some time later, after working on new proposals, we managed to reverse the situation, and the affected devs became part of new projects with new clients.

What marks this as a success story for me is having conveyed resilience, working hard to improve the situation, transmitting the belief that we would overcome it, and ensuring the team saw that instead of nervousness.

So… a Zen Master?

As leaders, we are constantly faced with the challenge of navigating through the turbulent waters of uncertainty, holding steady the helm to guide our teams towards a promising future. The key to overcoming these crises doesn’t lie in achieving an unbreakable Zen-like calm, but in the ability to inspire confidence and resilience in the face of adversity.

The true measure of our success isn’t found in the absence of fear or nervousness, but in our ability to conceal those internal storms and present calm and determination. After all, what our teams need to see isn’t a lack of challenges, but the assurance that, together, we can overcome any obstacle.

I invite you to reflect on these words: in times of crisis, how can you become the beacon of hope and stability your team needs? The answer lies not in perfection, but in authenticity, empathy, and the unwavering determination to overcome challenges together.

At the end of the day, leading successfully through adversity is not just about shielding our teams from chaos, but about forging a path to overcoming it, demonstrating that, despite the challenges, we are stronger together, and then, when we overcome them, we are even stronger for future challenges. 

That is the essence of truly inspirational leadership.