Smart leaders know that things have irrevocably shifted. They also know that trying to placate fears related to these seismic shifts cannot be best served by reassuring others that we will, ‘return to normal’ – or, that we will return to the way things were pre-Covid- 19.
This isn’t necessarily what the ‘others’ want to hear, but nonetheless, it is what we all need to hear!
We are living in unprecedented times (well certainly within the span of our lifetimes) and the role and importance of leadership – at every level, is critical. Traditionally leadership, as seen through the eyes of ‘authority,’ sees its role (in part) as that of protecting, directing and creating order. Certainly, that is how ‘authority’ is understood within the adaptive leadership model and it must be said, there is a role and place for exercising such authority.
However, in addressing and engaging in adaptive challenges (aka ‘times when we don’t know what to do), the role of leadership is not to assume control and patronisingly reassure everyone that things will be OK.
In such times, smart (adaptive) leaders understand the need to engage all the stakeholders. They also don’t shy away from using conflict and uncertainty as a means of engaging, learning and shedding light on new ways of understanding the prevailing context. This in turn provides the very keys to unlocking previously unthought-of and even unimaginable solutions.
All this requires a complete overhaul of much of our understanding of leadership – what it is and how it gets practiced. The situation created by this terrible pandemic has helped to create the climate for this long overdue rethink around leadership. This, I want to suggest, is a good thing and from which good things will emerge!
A solid place to start this ‘rethink’ is to challenge the old (leadership) notion of control and the need for certainty. Once you are willing to meaningfully embrace these core concepts – control and certainty, you are ready to meaningfully embrace what it truly means to be adaptive.
If the fog confronting leaders today were to be signposted, I would use one simple word: Uncertainty. It would be a signpost well-lit and large! It needs to be a signpost that leaves the leader who is leading into the future in little doubt as to what the journey entails. The certainty of uncertainty is the prevailing paradox facing leaders who ready themselves, and those along for the ride, for whatever the fog is hiding.
To lead into the future means that leaders need to understand, embrace and befriend uncertainty. Looking for certainty in today’s context is to cripple the thinking that is required and limit the options to be explored. Navigating the future will mean that as a leader you will have to be comfortable with prevailing uncertainty.
That is just the way it is.
One of your challenges will be to becalm the shrill cacophony of voices around you demanding certainty. Helping those you lead and the broader stakeholders understand the reality of uncertainty – both the dangers and opportunities, and what it needs to survive and thrive in such a context. This will be your immediate challenge. If you can do that, it will go a long way to determining just how well you navigate these foggy times.
There would be a few things that might help you in this unavoidable challenge:
1. Reinforce the context not once, not twice but every time you have the opportunity. Make the reality of ‘uncertainty’ something that is heard often enough to create its own strange comfort and steel others with the resilience and a readiness needed for the challenge.
2. Good questions make for great ‘fog-lights’. Questions that probe the uncertainty and focus attention and endeavour, are the fog-lights that illuminate the ‘next steps.’ They serve to keep us all moving forward and contribute to us making progress together.
You might well come up with other ‘fog-lights’ but whatever they are, make sure they keep you focused on the adaptive challenge at hand and not allow you to revert to more comfortable (familiar) work.
In adaptive leadership language, reverting to ‘familiar work’ is known as ‘work avoidance’ – in other words, relief that comes from ignoring the ‘in your face’ adaptive challenge, for other important work, but not the work that is required right now!
3. Don’t concern yourself with looking back. It is hard enough looking forward. Make looking forward your undivided focus and concern. It perhaps needs to be said that ‘looking back’ is not the problem – there needs to be an appreciation for the journey travelled.
It becomes a problem when it is done in order to ‘find a solution’. Your solution to an adaptive challenge is not something you have done; your solution is before you and it is something that needs discovery – not recall. This is why questions become so important – they aid and abet the discovery.
4. Stay calm. Your own level of comfort in uncertainty will go a long way to generate calm and cohesion amongst those that share the journey. They will be watching you, listening to you and will ultimately emulate you. Set the right example. Live the right example.
Duplicity of thought and action in foggy conditions can be fatal. Understand your own tolerance and threshold for uncertainty. The good news is that you can develop your own capacity for such and I have recommended a book at the end of this article that might help you understand just how to do this.
5. Keep your strategies flexible and hold your plans lightly. Flexibility becomes easier the more you stretch, so make sure your decision-making processes and operational follow-throughs are well stretched. Exercise often and regularly.
6. Pause intentionally and frequently. Allow your eyes time to adjust to the foggy conditions. You will be amazed at how they do (adjust) and it will make driving in uncertainty easier and slightly less stressful.
Help those around you learn what it is to ‘pause and allow time for their eyes to adjust’. Make it a regular habit both individually and collectively. It will help keep you on the road.
7. Get used to the fog (uncertainty) for when, from time to time the fog lifts, driving will be easier, but know this, fog will be the rule and not the exception. Accepting this makes everything easier.
It is not a word that evokes comfort or assurance, but if you are to lead into the future, you will need to find ways to make it both!
Finally, I would highly recommend Katheryn Schultz’s excellent book, ‘Being Wrong: Adventures in the margin of error’ (2010). Written well before this new reality we all face, but it is as though, it was written specifically for this new reality. It will help you understand the importance and need to embrace uncertainty and how our ‘errors’ are the means to do so both individually and collectively.
About the author of today’s Tuesday Tip – Keith Coats
Keith Coats believes that there will need to be a fundamental ‘leadership reset’ as a result of Covid-19. What the global pandemic has exposed is the global complexity that we always knew existed, but perhaps underestimated as we went about building our organisations and developing our leaders.
In a word, we will need to fully understand, appreciate and embody adaptability – if we are to build back better and be ready for whatever comes next. Find out more about our team’s latest framework that we’ve developed to help leaders.