ink drawing of an island by artist Emrys Williams to illustrate islands of stability blog post

Following the recent focus on the idea of stability in the UK General Election, Dr Katalin Illes, Acting Head of Westminster Business School’s Department of Leadership and Professional Development, reflects on how we can all create metaphorical islands of stability, to keep ourselves steady in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

Everything is in flux and constantly changing, but the need for anchoring is deep rooted in our human nature. We need a sense of stability and permanence even when – especially when – the environment around us is rather chaotic. If we can’t create that sense of stability then all our energy goes on survival and creativity and productivity go out of the window. The sense of stability that I am talking about must be generated from within. We can’t rely on the external environment to provide it for us.

I have been reflecting on the uncertainties and the increasingly unpredictable nature of work and life in general for quite some time. I could become angry and bitterly complain about bureaucracy, red tape, indecisiveness and general levels of institutional stupidity. But who would benefit from that? I certainly would not. I could make myself ill, totally burn out and give up on life altogether. I do not find these prospects particularly appealing. Would you?

What can I influence?

Rather than constantly worrying about decisions and the inevitable changes that are beyond my control, both at this university and in the broader environment, I have started to pay more attention to things that are within my sphere of influence.

Thinking about purpose, meaning and how to build a strong academic community are reoccurring themes of my reflections. How do I offer something to people who are afloat?

What can I do to counterbalance uncertainty?

What can any of us do when we have so little control?

photo of a pile of stones on a lake shore to illustrate stability

How can we find the stability we need to be able to thrive?

If you keep feeding an irritation, it grows out of proportion. And when it grows out of proportion, you feed all your anger and frustration and unhappiness with that incident, and it becomes debilitating.

When I get irritated, I now employ a self-monitoring practice. I acknowledge the irritation and ask whether it will still be affecting me in five years’ time. If that question doesn’t take the tension away, I ask what that particular irritation will mean to me in the broadest context of my life?

Usually, the irritations are insignificant. So I let them go and focus my attention on things that could lead to a more positive state of mind and give me a sense of achievement. These things can be as small as tidying my desk, dusting my bookshelf in my home office, cleaning a couple of windows or going out for a walk for half an hour, focusing fully on my steps. For me these are all good ways to create islands of stability, refresh myself and regain my balance and perspective in the process.

Simplicity, sophistication and self-importance

In the evenings, I read books that are life-affirming, soul nourishing, and which add to my sense of stability and connectedness. Sometimes what I read enables me to understand my daily struggles and I gain a more helpful universal human insight.

Let me share with you a quote that I recently found:

“What gets in the way of simplicity is not sophistication but self-importance, with all the complications it creates. The more lightly we take ourselves, the more we leave the narrow confines of our little egos behind and enter the wide-open spaces of our true selves. Men and women who expand themselves this way find common ground and great inner freedom. Rid of pretence, they seem to breathe most easily. They radiate sense of being at home in the universe and everybody feels at home with them.” (David Steindl-Rast (2002) Words of Common Sense for Mind, Body, and Soul, p.7.)

cover image of Words of Common Sense

Is not that inspirational? Almost as a self-protection I collect thought-provoking quotes that offer me a broad perspective and challenge me to become the best possible version of myself. I am consciously trying to move above and beyond the daily uncertainties of work and direct my attention to fundamental, life-enhancing philosophical and existential questions. The big picture.

Combining the big picture with small, positive changes increases stability in an insecure world

And, as a corollary to that, at times like now when the environment is uncertain, and I have no control over the outcome, rather than fantasising about how changes at work might damage my career or livelihood, I try to focus on the specific tasks ahead of me.

So, I am concentrating on trying to improve timetabling, for example. And I prioritise approving people’s requests for leave. Every morning it’s one of the first things I do, It’s a small job, but it is important to people, and responding quickly is a sign that I care. And it gives me a sense of achievement when I reflect on my day. Yes – I haven’t changed the world. But I made little improvements. Then I sleep peacefully and the following day I again look at the day and what it brings.

Your area of control isn’t the same as your comfort zone

There is a big difference between staying within your area of control and not venturing out of your comfort zone! For example, it is within my area of control in my current work role to challenge the status quo. I can ask difficult, unpopular questions. I can make comments and suggestions that go against the existing way of doing things. I can choose to push boundaries. I have a choice. If I wanted to stay within my comfort zone, I would avoid putting my head above the parapet. I would try to get away with as little as possible. But that would mean stagnating and shrinking when the essence of our human nature wants us to grow and live the best possible version of who we really are.

Your islands of stability

So, what are your islands of stability? Where do you feel safe and secure in the uncertainties of work and world events? Is it among your family members? Is it in your garden, or walking in nature? Is it among your favourite books?

The challenge is to look inside ourselves regularly and find what resonates with each of us personally.

Although we can support each other’s development, ultimately, we each have to construct our own, individual islands of stability. This inner stability that we create is our real stability. It stays with us, providing a strong foundation for well-being and a meaningful life and giving us the capacity to become ‘little islands’ for those we interact with, enabling us to increase the levels of stability wherever we go.

Portrait of Dr Katalin IlesDr Katalin Illes is acting Head of Westminster Business School’s Department of Leadership and Professional Development. Her current research interests include ethical leadership, spirituality and leadership, building trusting relationships in organisations and innovative ways of developing leaders. She has a wealth of experience in teaching Leadership, Personal Development, Management Development and Intercultural Communication on post-graduate and executive programmes.

The drawing of an island at the top of the page is by the artist Emrys Willams.

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