Leading in Uncertain Times
Do you remember playing Follow the Leader when you were young? When it was your turn to lead, you got to take the group anywhere you wanted to go. Sometimes you had a specific destination in mind and sometimes you marched aimlessly around.
Ah, if only leadership was that simple.
Leading others involves lots of moving parts. You must establish goals, then prioritize tasks and organize roles to meet the goals while balancing the needs of the organization and the mandate of your part of the business. The development, both personal and professional, of your team members is also in play. And unlike the Follow the Leader game, where all the players went along just for fun, you have to actually inspire your team to follow your lead. No taking it for granted.
Now, add to this leadership plate a whole bunch of unprecedented uncertainty. How do you lead when you don’t know where you are going?
One of our client companies has a unique leadership development program. They assign high potential new graduates to lead a team – throwing them into the deep end to see if they can swim. One young leader – Brad – was sinking.
When I first met Brad, I was surprised that he was doing so poorly in his new leader role. He was bright and personable during our coaching session, and seemed to have above average people skills. What was wrong?
It didn’t take long to find out. Brad’s strategy for being dropped into new territory with lots of uncertainty was to think about EVERYTHING – ALL THE TIME. True, he had a lot to learn about the business. And he had to get to know each of his 10 team members. So he buried himself in information. He set up a schedule of weekly 1 hour meetings with each of his direct reports. He spent his evenings reviewing case studies from his grad school program looking for hints. He hardly slept.
Brad’s strategy is not uncommon. Lots of us try to think our way out of unfamiliar challenges and/or uncertainty.
So much is uncertain right now. The pandemic is impacting business and our personal lives in countless ways. Some businesses are growing exponentially and can’t keep up. Some are making deep and painful cuts. No business knows for sure when the pandemic will end or what the economy will look like when it does.
You have to lead a team when you don’t see a clear path and don’t have adequate answers either to those you report to or to those who report to you. It seems reasonable to operate at an accelerated mental pace.
The last thing my client Brad wanted to do was stop or even slow down. Taking a moment to let his mind settle seemed irresponsible. To Brad, the uncertainty of the circumstances warranted his response. The uncertainty made him act the way he acted.
When you forget that your thinking is the sole determinant of how you experience any circumstance you understandably lose your balance. It looks like the power is out there, and out there is filled with unknowns and scary possibilities. You scramble to know things and when you can’t find certainty your mind will make stuff up. You occupy yourself with imagined worries.
My mentor, Sydney Banks used to say,
We look to information to give us wisdom when we need to look to wisdom to give us information.
When you remember the mind’s brilliant design to create experience from the inside-out, you settle down. You listen to your own wisdom and you get information. You put one foot in front of the other and you try not to get too far ahead of yourself.
Once Brad had insights about how his mind works, he told me, “You know Sandy, when I first came to see you I felt like I was hanging off a cliff by my fingertips and all I could hear you say was, ‘Let go!’ ‘Let go!’ I thought you were crazy. There’s no way I was letting go. Well, I finally let go … and I fell 6 inches.”
To quote another purveyor of truth, the troll in the movie, Frozen II:
People make bad choices if they’re mad or scared or stressed.
Leading in times of uncertainty can be difficult but you are equipped to find a way through. Slow down. Breathe. Look for insight.
Your team will thank you.