Wellbeing... more than a 'matrix' or a couple of 'quick-fix' sessions


I am flabbergasted at some of the recent comments made online regarding leader wellbeing within the education sector. Whilst some have engendered robust dialogue, others have been nothing short of arrogance.

In 1970 Joe South wrote the song “Walk a mile in my shoes”, which was later sung by Elvis Presley. The lyrics go like this…


If I could be you, if you could be me
For just one hour
If we could find a way to get inside
Each other's mind

If you could see you through my eyes
Instead of your ego
I believe you'd be, I believe you'd be surprised to see
That you've been blind

Walk a mile in my shoes
Walk a mile in my shoes
Yeah, before you abuse, criticize, and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

Now there are people on reservations
And out in the ghetto
And, brother, there, but for the grace of God
Go you and I

If I only had the wings
Of a little angel
Don't you know I'd fly to the top of a mountain
And then I'd cry, cry, cry?

Walk a mile in my shoes
Walk a mile in my shoes
Yeah, before you abuse, criticize, and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

Walk a mile in my shoes
Walk a mile in my shoes
Yeah, before you abuse, criticize, and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

Wellbeing and leadership are complex concepts, let-alone actions. There are many moving parts that need to be considered when looking at how to ‘do it better’. I am deeply concerned that assumptions, criticisms and judgements are being made around what we may not intimately understand. I am seeing these assumptions (albeit, some with the best of intent) being channelled into Wellbeing Matrixes, the offer of a couple of quick-fix sessions to ‘get them back on track’, or various other approaches that I see as being not too dissimilar to colonisation.

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us”.

Marcel Proust.

So, if we were to ‘Walk a mile in someone’s shoes’, how might that look? What might we need to do? What might we to stop doing?

What are their stories? How do you need to listen? How do you need to ‘be’ as you walk alongside them?

So rather than come-in with a pre-ordained way of ‘fixing’ the situation… let’s consider the possibility that we must…

“First seek to understand”

What emotions are you addicted to?

We BRING to ourselves situations that will meet the biochemical craving of our cells by creating situations that meet our chemical needs.”

Have you had a chance to mull that over?

It’s a huge statement.

Let me unpack it a bit…

Neuroscientist Candace Pert states that the hypothalamus part of our brain is “a little mini factory … that assembles certain chemicals … PEPTIDES … into neuro-peptides or neuro-hormones that match the emotional state we experience on a daily basis. … There’s a chemical for every emotional state we experience. The moment we experience that emotional state, in our body or our brain, the hypothalamus will immediately assemble the peptide and then release it to the pituitary and to the blood stream.” … The Peptide DOCKS onto our cells … and “changes the cell in many ways.” Read more here.

If the cells aren’t receiving their peptide of choice, they send a message to the brain to produce more. The brain then searches it’s emotional memory bank and pulls images from the past, that then create the thoughts required to release the required peptide from the hypothalamus (a very simplified version of a complex process). The cells don’t have a preference over whether a peptide produces helpful or harmful emotional states or behaviours, they just need their fix! This is where the concept of emotional addiction comes in. The loop between cell, hypothalamus and behaviour becomes like a record constantly cycling in the same groove.

An example would be someone addicted to stress who constantly displays self-sabotaging behaviours such as leaving things until the last minute, or a lack of any organisation. Sub-consiously, at a cellular level, they are continuing the same ‘loop’. Alternatively, someone who practices gratitude may display calm, positive behaviours. Their neuro-emotional ‘wiring’ is in a ‘loop’ that supports this behavioural output.

We can break emotional addictions that are unhelpful to our wellbeing, but it does require conscious effort. Over time we have hardwired chemical reactions in our brain that produce certain behavioural patterns. Through mindful practice, we are able to create new neuro-emotional connections, which in turn can change our patterns of behaviour.

A pathway to changing harmful emotional reactions and behaviours

The first part on the journey is to notice. To take a breath, then hold our thoughts at arms-length and look at them with an inquiring-mind. From this dissociated space, we are able to see the interplay and effect our thoughts have on us.

The next step is to name the emotions you are experiencing, take ownership for them… no one but yourself is making you react the way you are. It’s no-one’s fault!

The next step is to decide on a new way of approaching the issue and continually practice creating a new neural pathway and emotional response. This is hard-work! We are changing at a cellular level. Seek help from those you trust to support you not to fall into old thought patterns. Ask them to gently (or not so gently) to remind you of your commitment. Eventually, over time a new neuro-emotional connection will be formed - one that supports your wellbeing.

As you move forward into this week, take the time to consider which emotional states and behaviours are helpful or harmful to your wellbeing.

Which neuro-emotional connections will you strengthen?

Which neuro-emotional connections will you choose to manage?

What new neuro-emotional connections do you wish to consciously create?

New Year... Re-establishing True North.


Some people call them Boundaries; others call them Values… whatever you call them, they are True North of what sits deep within as a core part of our identity.

As the year progresses, people cross our path, circumstances arise, and we find ourselves easing on commitments we have previously made to ourselves.

Be it time, wellbeing, work, space, family or friends essential to our identity and wellbeing, we can compromise.

There are different schools of thought around how we manage this. The Four Burners Theory is built around the metaphor of a stove with four burners. Each burner represents one major quadrant of your life.

  1. Burner one represents your family.

  2. Burner two is your friends.

  3. Burner three is your health.

  4. Burner four is your work.


The Four Burners Theory says that “in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two.”

Now I don’t know about you, but when I have done this, it hasn’t gone too well. When we place work over friends and family, we can become isolated workaholics. Furthermore, if we rely on an income from work, yet choose to put socialising with friends ahead of everything, we can end-up in some serious financial trouble.

I also think there are other elements we need on our “stove-top” such as emotional wellbeing, spiritual wellbeing, financial wellbeing, and physical wellbeing to name a few. We are multi-dimensional complex beings that rely on a range of elements to keep us healthy.

Sure, there are times when we may need to get a project over-the-line, or address a health issue where we focus on one burner more than others, but I believe we need to turn the burners down, rather than switch them off completely.

The key however, is to notice how often you are turning-down which burners, and for how long. By noticing this pattern of behaviour, we can then reflect on the reason for our compromise, and are able to decide whether or not we wish to continue in this vein.


Another element to consider is the possibility of a different configuration; a stove-top with five inter-related burners, with one central burner. What would you place as your central burner; the one that if all others were low, you would need to sustain you? For me it is purpose. My wairua or soul is fed when I have purpose in my life. It is a purpose that transposes across all elements of my life; not just work-related. It is a core part of my identity, that has carried me forward through tough times. It is an innate quality that is not brash or bold, yet is an ever-present constant flame.

So as you look forward into 2019, consider:

  • What is your central burner - your true north?

  • What are your other burners?

  • How do they inter-relate?

  • How will you keep your burners alight?

  • When will you need to dim or heighten your burners throughout the year?

Let's disconnect in order to re-connect.

Eyes open. Arm extends. Phone clutched. Alarm off. Messages opened. Heart-rate rising. Eyes scanning. Brain rushing. Messages sent. Rush to shower.

Does this morning pattern sound familiar to you or someone you know?

This technology-infused world has enabled us to be connected in ways that bridge distance and time. It has however possibly disconnected us from the one connection that is of uttermost importance; connection with ourselves.

The Mental Health Inquiry report released December 2018, pointed to social media, social isolation, consumerism, competitive values, and unreasonable expectations for constant happiness as some of the causes of “a rising” tide of mental distress and addiction”.

Our phones have become extensions of ourselves, connecting us to others and the world around us. But how much of this has turned into addictive behaviour? Are you constantly checking, opening, scanning, ‘liking’ when you could be doing something else such as your work, communicating with others, or just spending time being present to what is happening around or within yourself?

On average New Zealanders will spend 18 hours a week getting their digital fix, up from 15 hours each week in 2015. (Newshub)

Kiwis between the ages of 15- 24 are spending a minimum of six hours a week accessing the web from a phone, according to Nielsen

In order for us to shift from becoming a bunch of pavlov’s dogs at the beck and call of the latest ‘ping’, to becoming more self-aware, I believe we need to spend some time disconnecting in order to re-connect with ourselves.


So how might we become more present? More mindful? More connected with ourselves?

  1. Awareness: Notice how often you are automatically reaching for a device.

  2. Acknowledge: Notice when you are doing this and acknowledge the underlying emotions or thought processes that underpin this behaviour eg: are you feeling lonely, bored, curious?

  3. Agree: Make an agreement with yourself on one action you will take to becoming more present to yourself, those around you, or your environment.

  4. Action: Place your plan into action and become aware of how you are going.

You might start with something small such as making an agreement with yourself not to check your phone until after your morning wake-up routine, thus giving yourself time to ease into the day.

Being mindful and present is something we need to practice and keep recalibrating.

Are you up for the challenge?

Wellbeing: Let's address it more than just one day a year.

It’s that time of the year when the phone starts ringing and emails begin pinging. A lot of these are asking me to speak to staff in schools and organisations about ‘Wellbeing’. As a former personal trainer, athlete, fitness instructor, massage therapist and now adventurer, and Leadership speaker, coach, facilitator and Roche Martin’s Emotional Intelligence Trainer for NZ, I deeply know the importance of such work.

I am super stoked to see schools/organisations beginning to address this need in their staff because the mental health and addiction statistics in NZ alone are grim reading:

  • The suicide rate is getting worse; a record 606 died by suicide in 2016-17, up from 579 the previous year. Our suicide rate for young people is among the worst in the OECD. The greatest loss of life through suicide occurs among people older than 24, particularly males aged 25–44.

  • Any one of us can be affected: over 50–80% of New Zealanders will experience mental distress or addiction challenges or both in their lifetime.

  • Addiction to alcohol and other drugs is causing widespread harm in New Zealand communities. Harmful use of alcohol and other drugs is significantly implicated in crime – around 60% of community-based offenders have an identified alcohol or other drug problem and 87% of prisoners have experienced an alcohol or other drug problem over their lifetime. Well over half of youth suicides involve alcohol or illicit drug exposure.

    He Ara Oranga Report, December 2018

A pattern I have found however, is that schools and organisations only tend to formally address ‘Wellbeing’ one day a year; and usually at the beginning of the year when everyone has had a well earned break. This is great at informing people around what to look for, how to maintain their wellbeing and strategies to navigate through times of disrupt, but it needs to be coupled with a more strategic approach to make a sustained difference.

It is during the year when people are under pressure and tired that they also need support. This is the time when they may need someone to talk-with to remind and reinforce previously learned strategies and help them navigate through tricky situations.

Furthermore, organisational systems, processes and culture need to be reviewed. In my work, I notice much of the stress people feel at work is related to poor systems or lines of communication. A deep review of everything that helps or hinders organisational wellbeing, supports organisations to become strategic about supporting and sustaining Wellbeing.

My questions to you are:

  • What are you doing to create a culture of care within your organisation?

  • How proactive and strategic are you being around Wellbeing?

Finally, it is no longer OK to offer Wellbeing lip-service - we have done that for decades, and it hasn’t worked!

As leaders, are you going to be part of the problem, or the solution?

Want to know more? Check out my Wellbeing at Work offerings.

Growing student emotional intelligence: A worksheet just won't cut it!

As I explore different online information, I often come across a variety of mindset-type resources. Whilst the idea of supporting students to develop self-confidence, resilience and an ability to reframe their thinking is hugely important, some approaches I come across (in my opinion), do not go to the depth we need to be exploring.

Stats of the Nation

In 2016 a NZ Ministry of Health annual report highlighted the realities of student emotional well-being finding:

“Children diagnosed with behavioural or emotional issues has doubled to 34,000 since 2006/7”.

“More than 15,500 children were diagnosed with anxiety - up from 2800 in the 2013”.

There were a staggering 606 suicides in New Zealand in the year 2016-2107!

The UN agency has ranked New Zealand 34th out of 41 OECD and European Union nations after averaging out a series of key social indicators.

The report found New Zealand had the worst rate in the world at 15.6 per 100,000 people in the designated age bracket (15-19).

It was twice as bad as the American youth suicide rate and almost five times worse than Britain's.


If we really want to support our youth to develop deep resiliency and self-belief, we need to do things differently.

A tool to help

Within the field of mBraining, there is a belief that we have three brains; head, heart and gut. In actual fact, we have neurons in each of these brains. Each of these brains have differing functions.


  • COGNITIVE PERCEPTION – cognition, perception, pattern recognition, etc.

  • THINKING – reasoning, abstraction, analysis, synthesis, meta-cognition etc.

  • MAKING MEANING – semantic processing, languaging, narrative, metaphor, etc.


  • EMOTING – emotional processing (e.g. anger, grief, hatred, joy, happiness etc.)

  • VALUES – processing what’s important to you and your priorities (and its relationship to the emotional strength of your aspirations, dreams, desires, etc.)

  • RELATIONAL AFFECT – your felt connection with others (e.g. feelings of love/hate/indifference, compassion/uncaring, like/dislike, etc.)


  • CORE IDENTITY – a deep and visceral sense of core self, and determining at the deepest levels what is ‘self’ versus ‘not-self

  • SELF-PRESERVATION – protection of self, safety, boundaries, hungers and aversions

  • MOBILIZATION – motility, impulse for action, gutsy courage and the will to act

Oka, M. & Soosalu, G. (2012. P. 45).

Putting mBraining into action

To influence student thinking at deeper levels, we need to be able to access not just their head-brain through worksheets, but create rich learning opportunities for students to experience being in the ‘pit’, then support them to move out of it. These opportunities are everywhere; however we do need to recognise and optimise them.

One example of this comes from my mahi alongside a teacher who was supporting her Year 4 & 5 students to explore the use of digital technologies in their learning. The students were working on various projects. Whilst there was a digital technology learning focus, there was also deeper learning occurring. As the teacher roved, she was asking questions such as

  • “ Who/ How do you need to be as you do this learning?”,

  • “I noticed that when you found this tricky, you gave up and moved to another task - where else in your learning do you repeat this behaviour and what might you do differently?”,

  • “What helped you to get out of the pit and where else could you apply these strategies?”,

  • “To what extent have you stretched yourself within this project - how might you take yourself into the pit?”

These were questions that challenged the students to address their emotions (heart-brain) and dig-deeper into the underlying patterns of behaviour (gut brain) that were helping or hindering their learning and personal growth. No worksheet can do this.

If we want our youth to develop their emotional intelligence, we need to do three things:

  1. Create rich learning opportunities for them to experience challenge.

  2. Share information about how new neural pathways are created, and the learning pit we experience as we create these pathways.

  3. Ask the deeper questions that support them to reflect-on their emotional responses and behaviours, then support them with alternative strategies.

Leading with Love

"In our work culture, and society in general, the image or metaphor of the heart is often associated with yielding, kindness — or perhaps weakness. Yet, the heart is also strong and powerful, as well as the driving force of life.

Susan Steinbrecher

When we lead with love, our actions and decisions are guided from a place of deep human connection. We lead from a place of good intent and purity of purpose.

Leading with love is not soft, nor is it fluffy. It can be as strong as titanium, yet come from a place of wanting the very best for the other person. It raises others to become a better version of themselves.

As a past Principal, I have had to make some very tough decisions, but when I did so from a place of aroha with the mantra “What’s in the best interests of the students?”, everything flowed. Alternatively, when I found myself trying to please everyone, or I looked at problems with a scarcity mindset, or I found-fault, things became tricky.

When we lead from a place of love, we make conscious choices as to how we show-up each and every moment. It is through conscious choice that we can transform not only ourselves, but those around us and our entire work culture. The diagram below shows the shift we are able to make in our leadership through conscious choice.

Screen Shot 2018-11-22 at 6.13.29 AM.png

As you go forward this week, consider

What would love do?

Tough times? Call-on your emotional wellbeing reservoir.

emotional reservoir pic.jpg

It’s that time of the year when our energy sources may be running a little low. Juggling demands of pre-xmas deadlines and expectations, whilst still ‘showing-up’ each day can leave us feeling drained. It is during these times that we need to dig deep into our emotional wellbeing reservoir.

This has been something I have had to do recently. After a period of heavy work demands and lots of travel, I had become tired. I then experienced online abuse of power from someone I had trusted and admired. That same night, a couple of people tried to break into my house whilst I was sleeping, waking and scaring the living daylights out of me. It seemed the universe had decided ‘violation’ was the theme of the day.

After a few tears, a brief period of self-doubt, and a lot of talking with trusted people, I managed to pull myself out of my funk. Below are two strategies I used:

  1. I thought back to times when I showed true grit and determination. I recalled how I got through when I lost everything I owned. I thought back on my emotional resilience after I experienced awareness during a tibial rodding operation. I also recalled my determination during the tough parts on the trek to Everest Base Camp. These were times when I had to dig deep to get through, and it was these times that helped build my emotional resilience reservoir that I now needed to call on.

  2. I adopted a mindset of empathy and compassion. I considered that maybe the people concerned were going through a tough time. Maybe money was tight, and one way of gaining it was to break-in and steal. Maybe things weren’t good in their world and they were vocalising in a hurtful way.

As you head into this time of year when demands are high and energy levels can get a little low, call-on your emotional wellbeing reservoir. Think back to the qualities you showed that supported you to get through tough-times. Dial them up, and anchor deeply into them. Furthermore, rather than take a stance of anger or hurt, turn it around to one of empathy and compassion.

Finally, amazing people… know that you’ve got this.

Kia kaha and arohanui

Mary-Anne :-)

De-sensitise communication

“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means”.

Ronald Reagan

Conflict is inevitable when people are working together. Everyone brings their own values, beliefs, worldview, knowledge and experiences that when mixed can create a melting-pot of ideas.

A trend I have noticed is the inability of some people to focus on the problem, rather than the person. I notice this in many contexts; face-to-face communication, community facebook pages, online news feed comments, and media feedback.

To give an example, here is an extract of feed from a news article in Stuff Oct 26th 2018 “Footpath inspector takes on Hamilton's 1000km of paths with new ride”

Screen Shot 2018-10-29 at 8.39.08 AM.png

Not only is this discriminatory, the fact that people feel they have the right to share their opinions in such a personalised way is in my view appalling.

As leaders, conflict resolution skills are a must-have. Unresolved conflict often results in a toxic culture, lowered motivation and results, raised absenteeism, the stifling of creativity, and the creation of barriers to cooperation and collaboration. Perhaps most importantly for leaders, good conflict resolution ability equals a good healthy culture and employee retention. Leaders who don’t deal with conflict will eventually watch their good talent walk out the door in search of a healthier and safer work environment.

A key thing to remember when faced with conflict is to:

Focus on the problem; not the person

There are three key strategies you can apply to desensitise a problem:

  1. Prioritise good relationships

  2. Listen from all viewpoints

  3. Seek to understand the facts, then address the problem.

Lastly - take a deep breath and lean into it.