First of all, to set expectations, this is not going to be your typical COVID-19 leadership article. 

I am not going to talk about how incredibly proud I am of our organisation mobilising 38000 FTE to work from home within 5 days, or how our people have adapted well to a new way of working. Lastly, I won’t be commenting on what I think the lessons are for leaders and organisations during this time or what the new normal will be post-COVID-19. That has been done to death.

Instead, I am going to talk about one thing that I believe is critical to all individuals in all aspects of their life - and it has been something over the last three years that I have personally dedicated a significant amount of time to. I have found that this particular asset that I have been building has served me well during that time, particularly in challenging and unforeseen circumstances, and I am convinced that it will continue to serve me well in the future. 

I am talking about “Mindset”. 

The so-called established set of attitudes and beliefs that impact the way you experience the world on a daily basis. In particular, over the last three years, I have been focused on “weaponising my mind” (a quote attributed to CrossFit coach, Ben Bergeon).

See Tedx talk from Ben on this topic here.

The idea being that in order to continue to grow in all facets of my life... in my leadership capabilities, in my relationships with family, friends and loved ones, on the sporting field, in moments that matter and in moments that don’t - that my mindset could very much positively or negatively impact this. 

So what I am going to share with you today are the activities I have undertaken, the people I have admired listening to, the books I have read and the quotes I constantly read...that continue to “weaponise my mind”. It’s not going to be a complete list, but I will include the ones that I feel have had the biggest impact on me and in particular have helped me get started on working on my mindset. I will also share ones I have gone back to more recently as a result of the challenges COVID-19 has presented. 

Before I get started, as a word of warning, the experiences, activities, people I reference and thoughts I share here are specific to me, my environment, and my circumstances. I encourage you to investigate what could work for you. I have bucketed these into two main groups with a third bucket that is positively impacted as a result of the first two.

Reading: My eight-year-old son is an avid reader. As an example, he has read almost all the Harry Potter books, each within a week at a time. His love for reading has inspired me to pick up reading again, but I wanted to ensure it was something that I enjoyed, whilst also positively impacting my thinking, not just a good story (although after having picked up reading again, I enjoy that now too). 

Subsequently, I normally dedicate a minimum of 30 minutes a day to reading, sometimes longer on the weekends.

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These books have had the biggest impact on my mindset:

  1. Solve for Happy: The story of Mo Gawdat, the Google CBO who tragically lost his 18-year-old son. Mo gallantly attempts to utilise his incredible problem solving and logic skills to effectively build a life algorithm for happiness. One of the exercises I found particularly interesting was tallying how many times a negative thought comes into your mind during one day - by 11:15 am I was at 77. Clearly an opportunity for improvement! For example, walking through the Berlin airport, “What is that person wearing?”, “Why hasn’t this person already taken their laptop out for security?”, “Why is this person walking so slowly…” You’d be surprised how many negative thoughts enter your mind in a day and how training them not to is much tougher than you think.

  2.  Mindset: Carol Dweck lays out clear arguments for why adopting a growth mindset is necessary to live a long, happy and successful life - very well researched, while still being incredibly easy to read. 
  3. Grit: Angela Duckworth argues that “grit” is the true ingredient for success and long term self-improvement. Again, incredibly well researched and inspiring to read. It will change your mindset on failure and perseverance. 
  4. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team; The Ideal Team Player; The Motive: Patrick Lencioni has written a few great books. These are short fables that have an incredible way of getting at the heart of the challenges that really plague leaders - whilst simple in nature, the topics he tackles are the hard ones to master - removing artificial harmony within leadership teams, creating passionate unfiltered debate, and getting real accountability and commitment to collective organisational goals. Exceptional at helping your mindset as a leader in challenging those topics that are typically very uncomfortable. 
  5. Atomic Habits: Written by James Clear, this book is a practical guide to create good habits and break bad ones, whilst supporting your mindset in doing so. I enjoyed the concreteness of the examples and the idea of creating triggers that allow you to continue to achieve your goals. For example, putting all your work clothes in the car at night before you go to the gym in the morning. 
  6. The Obstacle Is The Way; Ego Is The Enemy and Stillness Is The Key: I am a huge fan of Ryan Holliday’s work and in these books, he passionately tells the stories of many of the world’s most famous athletes, actors and politicians as well as many other unsung heroes. He gives incredibly strong accounts of why tackling the “tough stuff” is worth it, why you never have any excuse to be arrogant and how important it is to reflect and find quiet time to grow. Along with Patrick Lencioni, these are a must read for anyone in leadership roles wanting to work on their mindset. 
  7. Talking to Strangers: Malcolm Gladwell talks about being more conscious of the preconceived notions that exist when we try to build connections with people we don’t know. He does this by telling some incredible stories of CIA spies, US race incidents’ and war. For example, he discusses the misreading of Hitler by Chamberlain, and how despite him having a written and signed accord from Hitler saying he would not go to war, his mindset and approach in “reading” the situation required altering. 
  8. The Daily Stoic: Despite this book being written by Ryan Holiday (and Stephen Hanselman), I decided to pull it out of the previous list (see point 6 above) because I find that it has one of the strongest impacts on my mindset before I start the day. It is a compilation of 366 days of writing on the art of living based on stoic philosophy. The book draws on work from Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus in order to have you reframe your mindset on certain topics or issues. A must-read. 

Exercise:

My second bucket is intense exercise. Most would be aware of the large body of evidence that statistically proves frequent exercise elevates mood, positivity, and in turn, optimism. 

Exercise has become a staple part of ensuring my mindset remains where I need it to be.

The exercise routine I follow is CrossFit, Yoga and walking. 

For those of you unfamiliar with CrossFit it is an exercise routine that absolutely anyone can undertake and is a mix of gymnastics, olympic weightlifting, running, swimming, rowing etc. The whole premise centres around the idea that true fitness is measured by your ability to undertake a range of activities over broad time domains. For example, one morning you might do a 5KM row for time; the next day you might do back squats followed by 20 minutes of “as many rounds as possible” (AMRAP) set of 5 chinups, 10 pushups and 15 air squats. 

As mentioned earlier crossfit can be scaled to absolutely any level of fitness and so anyone can ease themselves into it or make it extremely hard. I love CrossFit because if you so chose, it can be very competitive (competing in online competitions, local tournaments etc).

Competing in CrossFit often means that you train to exhaustion...that you often go deep into the “pain cave” and keep pushing yourself through. Make no mistake - no matter what level you are when you start, or how you start, crossfit builds mental toughness and character. I typically do CrossFit 5-6 days a week, although when travelling I drop into a box. Find out more about CrossFit at crossfit.com or search for a local box to drop in to. I also do Yoga 2-3 days a week as a way of taking my mind completely off work. I find that when I am doing Yoga, it’s difficult to think about anything else other than breathing and holding a position. I use this as an opportunity to give my mind a break, to recharge, and to refresh. I don’t subscribe to any particular yoga scheme online. I just follow workouts off of YouTube, of which there is a myriad. 

Lastly, I enjoy walking our dog and listening to podcasts while doing so. My favourite podcast is “Chasing Excellence” by Ben Bergeon. 

By combining all the above, I find they help me in dealing with stress. I find when I skip the above routines my overall patience, empathy and positivity drops a notch, which impacts my mindset negatively and correspondingly impacts those that I come into contact with. 

Family:

In spending the last few years in working on mindset, I have come to significantly appreciate the value of family. How is this connected to mindset? Simple. Most of the things that I get up each day to do are in some way, shape or form connected to my family. 

For example, reading about mindset gives me the opportunity to appreciate the time I can spend with my children playing games or teaching them a new skill. There is a great quote that I love from an unattributed author that a few other authors have reworded where they comment on the fact that you don’t “have” to do anything...you “get” to. I repeatedly tell myself that when my 3-year-old asks me to play Beyblades for 30 minutes after a 13-hour workday. Exercising means I have the mental and physical stamina to still play football with my son in the backyard after already having worked out that day, as well as help my wife with any other chores that need to be done around the house. 

In summary, my improvement in mindset helps me be a better person, leader, friend, father, brother, son, human. 

So I encourage you to use the current crisis to think about your mindset and how you in turn can also be a better human. 

I have included a few of my favourite quotes and pictures below, please feel free to reach out to me on any of the above topics if I can help in any way.

 Stay safe, healthy and happy.  

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about the author
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michael smith

md of rsr emea and ceo of randstad uk & ireland

Michael Smith joined Randstad in 2002. He was promoted to Managing Director in October 2015, adding on the Group's operations in Hong Kong and Malaysia to his remit.

Michael is currently the MD of RSR EMEA and CEO of Randstad UK&I - collectively being responsible for a 1500+ FTE organisation with over a billion euros under management.