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What Oscar Wilde can teach you about resilience

Posted on January 31, 2014

Oscar Wilde wrote a heart-rending fairytale called The Happy Prince. In it, a swallow befriends the statue of a town's late prince. From his plinth, the Happy Prince sees his people suffering, and asks the swallow to help them, using the decoration from his statue. The ruby is taken from his sword hilt, the sapphires are plucked from his eyes, and the gold leaf covering his body is torn off by the swallow, to alleviate the plight of the poor. The Mayor walks by, and looks up. Seeing the now ugly statue, he orders it to be pulled down, and thrown away. 

This story is a great parable for all those people who give of themselves too much. The Clore Social Leadership Programme has a great model: Know Yourself, Be Yourself, Look After Yourself. Particularly in the social sector, it's tempting to think that you're virtuous if you work hard and work late, and are deeply heroic in your job performance. But what happens to your organisation if you simply use yourself up?

I've worked with some clergy who reckon God wants them to use themselves up in service of others. It's even got a fancy name - kenosis, or self-emptying. But I think this is a confusion, and at its worst it has a lot more to do with ego than with selflessness. Yes, you are special and unique, but other people are also special and unique, and are also called to serve, whether in the religious life, through volunteering, or through working in the social sector or elsewhere. What more could you do, not only to set an example about life balance to those whom you lead, but also to grow talent around you and share the work around? In a country where 21% of 18-24 year olds are unemployed, our culture of over-working is having devastating consequences. Senior people are burning out from over-work, while there is an acute shortage of jobs for entry-level candidates.

Over-working causes stress, which has a negative effect on your ability to sleep well. If you don't get good quality sleep, your ability to form memories and make good decisions will diminish. Your executive functioning also diminishes with every effortful act you make during the day, so the typical leader shouldn't be allowed to drive a fork-lift truck, let alone run an organisation. 

I talk a lot about ego depletion - will-power battery management - and this is a great way to decide what you can and can't do. Let's assume that those Dementors in your life won't go away - bad weather, transport glitches, annoying people, pointless meetings, etc etc etc. But you can top yourself up by taking control of your diary, particularly when some of these energy sappers are wholly predictable. Here is a generic list: rest, water, bananas, flattery, laughter, music, beauty, altrusim, outdoors, mates, cat videos (!). But what else gives you joy, peace and perspective? Diary them in. Make a list, and deploy your own Whiskers on Kittens whenever your mood sinks. You are far too special and precious to be thrown away, and you can be more useful in the longer term by being selfish enough in the short term to keep yourself healthy and well.

This is a blog from Eve Poole.  Eve is a facilitator on the Clore Social Programme, and a lecturer at Ashridge Business School focusing on leadership, learning, emotional intelligence and ethics.

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