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The unexpected happens, how we maintain a sense of calm when all around seems to be in chaos shows our true character. At a time when there has been so much uncertainty, so many opinions, conflicting views, shifting landscapes and changing narratives that it has left many feeling drained, confused and looking for guidance, we need leaders who will return us to calm. Successful leaders know how to eliminate the noise, return to a central equilibrium and focus on what matters. Leaders who are able to bring those they lead to an environment of calm will be well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves as we emerge from this pandemic.
In times of uncertainty we look to our leaders for direction. How they react to changing circumstances and obstacles sets the tone for others to follow. Whilst reputations precede us and shape how others look at us, our character is what emerges in times of turmoil and places our strengths and weaknesses clearly on display for all to see. When these moments arrive you see the true colours of those that lead, as the pressure mounts and the uncertainty increases do they remain calm and steady the ship or do they scramble and fuel a sense of panic and uncertainty. The latter creates a level of anxiety that can ripple across an organisation and intensify as it spreads, destabilising an already tilting ship.
I found that the most successful leaders approach uncertainty with a level of acceptance which seems to settle the nerves of those they lead and instils confidence that the challenge presented is not insurmountable. They tend to shift the language from we are presented with a problem, to we are presented with an opportunity to look through a new lens, which demonstrates an attitude of acceptance and directs focus away from the chaos towards the task at hand and the process that needs to be followed. In short, successful leaders acknowledge the challenge and don’t get caught up in emotion, they remain self aware, managing their emotions and thought processes. They understand that whilst they may not have control of external factors, they do have control of how they react to the environment around them. Strong leaders manage to portray a sense of calmness even though they may be scrambling inside.
As the uncertainty emerges strong leaders step up to the plate. They remain patient and try not to act impulsively gathering as much information as they can before choosing a path. They look objectively at possible solutions identifying what they can control and what is beyond their sphere of influence, listening attentively for any additional information that may assist in providing a roadmap out of the current predicament. By maintaining a calm environment people will be more comfortable to come and share information, ideas and solutions with you. In times of crisis information is critical, if you create an environment that is calm and encourages sharing and collaboration you are more likely to have access to the relevant information at the right time. Clearly and confidently articulating very deliberate choices and reasons for next steps eases the anxiety of those you lead and encourages a sharp focus on a plan for the future.
Uncertainty brings with it a degree of pressure which seems to increase as the uncertainty continues. At this time bringing a level of perspective and balance is vitally important. Too many people start to catastrophize and lead down a negative path imagining all the things that could go wrong. Thinking logically about possible scenarios, whilst not downplaying any possible negative outcomes, is a skill that some have naturally but many of us develop through experience. Those with experience will notice cycles in their industry and will be able to use this knowledge to provide balance and perspective of lessons learned previously. Past experiences allow you to get a read on possible scenarios, think through previously tabled solutions and look for any similarities to use as a starting point for discussion. Drawing on this knowledge or talking to others who may possess it is a key strategy when faced with mounting chaos.
When the challenge arises and others scramble for cover, strategic leaders demonstrate a level of vulnerability, acknowledging that there may be no obvious solutions available but balance this with a calm determination that there is no obstacle that can’t be overcome. Whilst vulnerability will be welcomed by some it is a fine line between this and sending an unconscious message that you may be in over your head. It is critically important to use your EQ and read the room to know just how much to open up. This is a time when your team needs to feel confident that you are the person that can lead them out of this scenario. Starting your address with “I’m not sure how we get through this’ will lose those you lead regardless of what follows next. Research has shown that leaders who appear calm are viewed as more capable and are able to build the trust of those they lead more readily. Those you lead will be more willing to listen and take direction from you if you appear to have everything under control.
When the chaos comes and it will, think about the steps below to get you through.
- Slow Down – Take a few deep breaths and clear your head. Sometimes the clock is ticking and the faster you try to problem solve the more mistakes you make. When you slow down you can process information more accurately which allows you to be more deliberate in your actions and choices.
- Ask Questions – Information is key at times of uncertainty. Ask questions, listen carefully and dig into answers. Sometimes when you ask the right questions the answers have a way of revealing themselves.
- Identify the Experts – No-one can have all the answers, understand that there are people with greater subject matter expertise than you. Identify them and seek their assistance.
- Focus – If this is the priority, all other things can wait. Give yourself a few minutes to focus by putting down the phone and stop checking your emails. If this really is a crisis then it needs your attention, stay focussed.
- Stay Optimistic – Regardless of how chaotic the time is there will be an end to it. Trust in your ability and that of your team. You will overcome this challenge and will seize the opportunities that lay ahead.
- Watch Your Messaging – Not just what you say but also your tone and body language. Those you lead will pick up on inconsistencies and subtitles in your messaging. Keep it clear, calm and consistent.
In leadership positions there are always time of uncertainty, being caught up in the ensuing chaos will serve no-one. As a leader in these situations you have a choice, create a calm environment or feed the chaos. Your role is to focus on what matters most at that time and in most cases it is keeping your people and organisation safe, the best way to do this is to lead with a calming confidence. Knowing that these times may be uncomfortable and accepting it and leaning into the discomfort rather than finding ways to avoid it will be what separates you from other leaders. Our instincts will be to duck and weave, that’s basic self preservation but in times of chaos we all have a choice, step up, stay calm and lead through.
Have you ever walked into a room where you can feel the energy straight away, it almost hits you in the face as you enter. Sometimes it’s an upbeat positive vibe that’s almost tangible and at others it’s an uncomfortable negative energy that seems to suck the oxygen out of a room. If you can feel it when you walk into a room, you’d imagine that those in the room are living the same experience, immersed in a powerful emotional melting pot. In a workplace, these emotionally charged environments can impact the ability of those in the room to interact, function and perform their roles. The transference of emotions can be done unconsciously without any verbal exchange through facial expressions, postures, sounds and other non-verbal cues. In some settings, emotions transfer from one person to another and can intensify causing them to spread rapidly. This spontaneous spreading of emotions is known as emotional contagion and has the ability to significantly impact the success of an organisation.
We are generally not aware of emotional contagion until we are in the midst of a surge of emotions. If you’ve ever been to a concert there is generally a feeling of excitement prior to the performance and then a surge of emotion sweeps the crowd as the performers take to the stage. This collective surge of emotion can be extremely powerful and can energise even the most reserved member of an audience. There has been a great deal of research conducted on emotional contagion to understand this powerful driver and its impact on individuals and groups. There is no denying that emotions influence behaviours and alter thought patterns. Understanding the significance this has on group dynamics and individual performance is a vital component of a leader’s armoury.
During human interactions, we know that people have a tendency to mirror the emotional state of the person they are interacting with, so understanding how positive or negative emotions influence positive or negative behavior can assist you when leading a team. By paying attention to emotions in the workplace and consciously working to shape them, you can potentially amplify belonging, connectedness and positivity leading to increased levels of performance. Alternatively, by ignoring them and glossing over emotions that run through an organisation you can run the risk of allowing feelings to grow that could be counterproductive to what you are aiming to achieve. Leaders who understand the impact and influence of emotional wellbeing know that monitoring the emotional health of an organisation goes a long way to building a successful culture.
Understanding how emotional contagion works and being aware of it assists you with identifying areas in your team where it may be more prevalent than others. People can’t always put into words how they are feeling and some are reluctant to share how they feel, so looking for emotional subtitles is important. In our work environments, dominant emotions can alter group behaviour. Once a person succumbs to the dominant emotion it can stay with them for the whole day and even transfer from setting to setting influencing each environment they enter. If it’s a positive emotion then that’s ok, if on the other hand it is one of negativity and pessimism then we need to intervene quickly. Negative emotions are extremely powerful and tend to spread more rapidly so looking for any shift in the positive to negative ratio of conversations, ideas and solutions can give great insight into the emotional wellbeing of your team members. If we recognise any shift, we must make a conscious attempt not to buy into the emotion avoiding any triggers that may lead us down a similar path. Just like any contagion, emotional contagion needs a host to spread. As the leader, you don’t want to be the one spreading negativity.
Effective leaders consciously model the emotions they want to cultivate in their organisation. They have an ability to show up in each interaction or new environment in the right emotional state regardless of what is going on below the surface or behind the scenes, it’s almost like they have an emotional mask. These emotional masks allow leaders to project to those they interact with the preferred emotional response required at the appropriate time. It’s not that they are being false or misrepresenting themselves, it is more that they are aware of the impact their emotions can have on others. There is evidence to suggest that people tend to adopt and copy the tiny communicative behaviours of those they engage with and in doing so are willingly led down the path of acquiring the same emotional state. So leaders who are able to manage their emotions and use them successfully during interactions are better equipped to leave an environment with the right emotional setting before they exit. Understanding emotional contagion allows you to manage any spread by recognising the signs and adjusting environmental settings accordingly.
In a workplace, emotional contagion can have a significant impact as the emotions of one or two individuals can flow over and have a ripple effect across the entire team. When emotional contagion takes hold of a group it can be a difficult space for a leader to navigate. If you notice your team in the grips of emotional contagion trying to immediately dampen the mood can actually be counterproductive as there may be a feeling you are trying to ‘shut it down’. It’s important to allow people to present their grievances in an appropriate way. I’m not suggesting that we openly encourage public displays of dissatisfaction, but remaining calm and giving time for the emotion to drain from the room allows you to try to shift thinking towards more constructive conversations focused on solutions. As the leader you need to control the temperature in the room, people will look to you to see how you adjust the gauge to either raise the heat or cool it down, they will take their cues from you. If you are combative then you’ll get this mirrored back at you, if you are open, considered and calm, then there is more of a chance this may be reciprocated. I’m not naïve enough to think that remaining calm will reduce the temperature in a room, but the alternative will certainly not. Demonstrating that there is always a way forward sets an expectation and tone that there is an achievable resolution.
We know that when we are around positive people we are more positive. If someone smiles at you try not to smile, it’s hard, in a crowd where there is laughter try not to laugh, this too is difficult. We know that negative emotions are the most powerful in terms of their ability to spread. It is therefore our responsibility to ensure that we keep our emotions in check and identify how we are feeling before, during and after each interaction. Having the ability to identify and regulate how you are feeling is going to be an extremely powerful tool. As a leader, you potentially have the greatest influence over the culture you are trying to create. Emotional contagion can have positive effects on those we lead, if we set the tone. As you go about your work, think carefully about how you would like to leave each environment once you have left it. I personally can think of only one way. When you next walk into a room make a conscious effort to smile and bring positive energy and watch the room join you. Those you lead are not emotional islands; they’ll look to you to see which way the wind is blowing and if you get it right they will be swept along with your positivity.
Have you ever heard of someone being in the weeds? I’m not talking about gardening Australia rescuing the petunias. I’m talking about when there are multiple streams of information coming at you all at once and you find yourself lost in the details, unable to rise above and see the bigger picture. Many of us believe the only way to deal with it, is to roll up the sleeves, grab a second cup and slog through. As leaders we obviously need to know the details, we need to have access to all relevant information and we need to be able to use this to make decisions. What is potentially more critical though is that we are able to immediately direct our attention where it is needed at any point in time and understand how our efforts will fit into the bigger picture. In leadership positions the hours can be long, the tasks can be demanding and if we are not focussing our energy where it needs to be we may be adding little value to the work we are entrusted with. Getting caught up in the minuscule and being sucked into the detail vortex drags us into the weeds and potentially detracts our attention from what’s important, sending us down a slippery slope which may have unintended consequences.
Unfortunately for some leaders they spend too much time amongst the weeds and lose sight of what’s important. It can happen to all of us at some point in time when work mounts up and we start to feel like we have lost the reins. It’s here that you’ll start to use the ‘if I just’ statements. If I just had some more time, If I had just done it myself, If I had just watched that more closely, If I can just get this done. When this happens you are well and truly in the weeds. Weighed down by tasks that are better left to subject matter experts who have the knowledge, skills and technical expertise to complete the tasks required. Living in the weeds is not leadership, climbing out of them and building the capacity of others to help navigate through them is the role of an effective leader. Our most effective leaders never spend too long here, they recognise that this will prevent them from doing the most important task they have as a leader and that is to develop those they lead.
As you head down into the weeds you start to leave the leadership role and head into the role of management. The weeds are generally the tasks that can be delegated to those you lead who have direct contact with the matter at hand. The trap for those new into leadership is that they try to keep up the illusion that they are in total control and have full coverage of all areas. When you get into the weeds you start requesting all the details to ensure things are on track and then start to put in place systems and structures to avoid this happening again which require a constant stream of information being available to you. This then leads to following up in minute detail each element of an initiative or program in an attempt to ensure that all the moving parts stay on track. By doing this, you hope, you can keep it all on track, keep everyone in their lane and ensure that all programs are completed on time, every time. This may get the job done but the unintended consequences can erode trust and disempower those you lead as you enter the realm of the micromanager.
Unfortunately, with all best intentions micromanagement has consequences for those we lead. Whilst the intentions may be pure, the behaviour tends to disempower. Micromanagers spend a great deal of time examining the work of their team and less time focusing on the things that really matter. As I’ve said previously it’s great to be across all elements of your work but trusting that those you lead have the skills and capabilities to produce what is needed for you is an essential part of leadership. When leaders start to micromanage this filters down through the organisation and drives a pattern of behaviour that does nothing to help promote a positive culture. If things are not happening as they should then coaching and mentoring is the pathway rather than micromanaging. As a leader you have two courses of action here: either you trust your subject matter experts who are in the weeds working with their teams or you head down there and start to make the decisions. Whilst option two may be required on some occasions if it becomes the norm rather than fertilising the ground to prosper you are stifling any growth that may occur. What also creeps in is a feeling by those you lead that you are creating work for the sake of it as you remove any control they have on their area of expertise. Come up from the weeds and direct traffic from the balcony, you’ll get a clearer picture and will be able to see how all the avenues of work intersect.
One proven method to help stay out of the weeds is to delegate. Delegation is an art form that must be learnt and mastered to be truly effective. Delegating to get things off your desk has no real impact other than to lighten your load. Understanding the skills and capabilities of those in your team and delegating to their strengths is an effective and efficient strategy used by our most capable leaders. There are days when it is necessary to get down into the weeds and there is nothing wrong with being a hands-on leader, working shoulder to shoulder to guide, coach or learn with your colleagues, this is a valuable part of leadership. It’s when the fulcrum tips and you start to do tasks for those you lead, impacting on their professional capacity to perform their role that you’ve gone too far. This moves into micromanagement territory which can lead to a loss of trust and disharmony. By micromanaging you are placing all your energy in areas where there are usually quite capable people already working on a solution. In doing so you are taking away the decision making process from those you lead. Smart leaders harness the skills and experience of those they lead and align them to the right initiatives freeing themselves up to make the decisions that matter. It’s always intrigued me why some leaders have experts on their team but fail to take their advice because it does not sit with their agenda. If a surgeon tells me I need urgent surgery I’m not questioning them because it will ruin my plans for the weekend, I’m getting the surgery. We should continually strive to effectively utilise the skills and experience of those we lead to help guide our decisions.
As mentioned earlier there will be times when you need to take a deep dive into the weeds to see first hand what is occurring. Whilst on the surface this could appear to be an attempt to micromanage, I’d prefer to look at it as a coaching opportunity. The difference is the purpose of your deep dive. If we use this as a coaching opportunity it allows you to work alongside colleagues, providing guided and constructive advice to enhance capability and refine skills. Micromanaging on the other hand is pushing colleagues to the side and completing the task for them. A coach sets expectations and goals whereas a micromanager sets boundaries and parameters. It may sound like semantics but it all hinges on the intent of the leader. Is it a punitive approach to show why someone is not achieving or is it a learning opportunity to build capacity? From my experience the latter is the most effective path.
As work starts to pile up there are a few questions I ask myself to help stay above the weeds. Does this really require my attention or can it be delegated? Who has the expertise to complete this task? How will I get reliable and accurate information about this when I need it? Does it need to be done now? By answering these questions I am able to, for the most part, stay out of the weeds. It’s worth considering what structures you have in place that allow you to get authentic feedback and real time information when required? How have you empowered and built trust with those you lead to ensure they alert you to any potential issues and offer solutions before they turn into bigger issues. When we get the information we must decide if we need to get down in the weeds or just ask the right questions to assist in gathering enough information to develop a solution. By asking coaching questions of those we entrust to run programs and initiatives we will in most situations develop the right solutions. I’ve found when people come to you for solutions they usually have something in mind. Your role is to ask questions so they can develop the solution, which in turn gets buy-in as there is a sense of ownership. By using this approach you allow the solutions to grow out of the weeds.
Spending our days in the weeds is not the most effective form of leadership. I’m not suggesting that we don’t want to know the details, it is important that we have that information at hand. Obviously when we are mapping out a plan or a strategy the specific details are a crucial component and tracking progress against details are key to keeping things on track. It’s when this becomes your daily work and you remove the responsibility of those you lead to make informed decisions that you need to rethink your approach. Developing effective systems and structures that become the norms of how you operate provide scaffolds to work within and should remove the need for you to micromanage. Building a culture of open and honest communication where a wide variety of views are accepted, not always agreed to, but certainly heard, will empower those you lead to make decisions, voice opinions and trust that when you make the final decision you have done so after considering all the evidence available. This will keep you out of the weeds and allow you to focus your energy on achieving successful outcomes for those you are entrusted to serve. When you next start down that path, take a minute to ask yourself what’s important and who on my team have I entrusted with this task. If you’ve built capacity and trust, those you lead will be skilfully navigating the weeds for you. Leadership is about building the right conditions for things to flourish, if you achieve this the weeds will take care of themselves.
I’m not sure that there is one dominant leadership trait that rises above all others in the litany of leadership traits that surround us. It seems all too easy to adopt a single trait as the most influential and you’ll be leading with the best of them. The one constant element is that leadership is about developing your skills with the right balance of knowledge to compliment your skill set. The art of leadership really is about doing, it’s about the way in which you behave, interact, listen, guide, support and make decisions. Essentially it’s a set of behaviours. Identifying what works for you in your context and repeating it to form the habits that work best for you is where the power lies. What are the skills you need to lead in your context? How do you develop those? How do you know they are working? Once identified it’s a matter of repeatedly using them until this behaviour becomes automatic.
There’s plenty of research and leadership development courses available that identify the behaviours required to successfully lead. Whether they align with your philosophy, values or beliefs is ultimately up to you. What the self help guides don’t necessarily articulate is that these behaviours are only successful if they are sustained. If it was as simple as attending a course, reading a book or watching a lecture we’d all be leadership experts. How often have we returned from a professional development opportunity enthused and brimming with confidence about the new method, strategy or technique only to implement them for a period of time before we revert back to what we know and what is comfortable. For these new methods to stick they have to become automatic elements of your repertoire.
When you got up this morning did you have to think about how you poured your coffee, ate your breakfast or brushed your teeth? For most of us these things happen automatically without a great deal of thought. We’ve performed these tasks so often that they have become automatic aspects of our daily life that require little thought or effort to complete. In fact our brains actually require these automatic habits to conserve energy to allow us to complete the more complex tasks in our day. Have you ever had one of those occasions when you were driving to a particular destination only to realise you were heading somewhere else just purely out of habit. According to a study conducted by Duke University about 40% of the decisions we make each day are based on habitual routines not conscious thought. Habits are ingrained and difficult to break.
Understanding how habits are formed is essential for reinforcing current habits or developing new ones. It seems easy, set a goal, establish a routine and follow it through with positive reinforcement and constructive conversation. Unfortunately it’s never that easy. Passion and enthusiasm only lasts so long. The reality is it is much harder than that. Good or bad, habits are just a response to some form of cue. To develop a habit you need to do two things: break the old and develop the new. Repetition of the desired behaviour and practice really are the only way. Habits form when we deliberately repeat the behaviour in the same environment. By doing this we use environmental cues to help solidify the behaviours. Identifying what triggers the habit (the cue) and making a conscious choice to replace it with an alternative is the most successful method of changing a habit. Replacing the old with the new so we stop doing one thing and start doing another.
In leadership positions though it can be challenging to develop new habits. When we start to lead a new team we observe how things operate, how people interact, how the work streams get managed and how we measure success. From these observations we then start to put our own influence on them to try to improve, enhance or solidify the traits that we believe are successful and align with our vision for the team. How do we do this? We develop norms, rituals, observable behaviours that we want to see to allow the team to enhance what they do. We attempt to develop new habits within our teams. We often face resistance and a push to maintain the status quo especially if the new habits are difficult to maintain. This is the work of developing culture and can take time. What also takes time but will have just as a dramatic impact is developing your own leadership habits. Developing good habits in your own leadership plays a significant part in your overall effectiveness and as an extension the success of your organisation. The only proven method that I know to become a better leader is to refine your leadership skills through systematic and sustained practice. Consistent and persistent practice turns everyday behaviours into automatic habits. We want our successful leadership behaviours to become habitual parts of how we lead. Excellence in leadership is not a one off win, it’s not that one great idea or initiative it’s a sustained pattern of behaviour that drives your organisation to achieve.
To do this, it would be worth asking those you lead to complete some form of survey that identities the leadership behaviours that you display. There are a variety of them out there. You’ll need some courage to do this because there may be some insights revealed that have been blind spots for you because they are habits you may not realise you have. The results will indicate which ones are positive and which ones you need to work on. From here you can start to look deeper into the results to try to identify patterns or triggers that lead you to behave in a particular manner at certain times. It’s always good practice to discuss the results and your own insights with a trusted colleague who can serve as a critical friend by asking probing questions. Once you have some insights it’s good practice to write down your daily routine and try to map out the behaviours you default to in each situation. Which ones are the positives, which are the ones for refinement and what can you discard. Those habits you need to let go of can be the most challenging to work on. Look for little behaviours that you do without consciously thinking about them; these are the ones that you should work on first. I find having some form of physical reminder available as a trigger can assist here. I have a little red tag on the top page of my diary each day that reminds me to ask more questions and not try to solve the problem too quickly. Small physical cues can help to keep you on track and remind you of the habit you are trying to break.
Like most things we like to get a few quick wins on the board. Unfortunately with habits they are generally so ingrained that it takes time to cement the change you are trying to see. You are going to have to be motivated and be prepared for the long haul. There may be no quick wins here and unfortunately this can drain motivation levels and leave you feeling like you are spending too long in the learning pit. This is where your EQ will have to kick in and you’ll have to draw on your resilience, grit and apply a healthy sense of optimism. One way to assist here is to look for tiny changes that can be made rather than a large scale overhaul. It may be that you keep the same routine and consciously substitute one small behaviour for another. You’ll have to be mindful of the old habits that are still firmly in place trying to influence your behaviour. This is where a critical friend can offer assistance. Sharing what you are trying to achieve with a trusted colleague is a good way to get an independent read on how you are travelling towards developing a new habit.
Whilst leadership can be heavily influenced by the leader’s personality and ability to connect with people it is ultimately their behaviour that makes or breaks them. It’s the leader’s ability to continually perform and build a culture that people want to be part of that sets them apart from the pack. The habits we display can be powerful predictors of our success. It’s worth taking time to really examine how you go about your day to identify the habitual routines and decision making processes you’ve established to see what impact they are having on your leadership. As the saying goes, we are creatures of habit. You never know a small change or adjustment may make a significant difference to not only your success but to the entire culture of your organisation.
Some of the biggest challenges to leading with vulnerability are the structures around us that project the perfect ideal. This can be our own immune systems that we develop to protect our sense of self or the social construct of our organisations that fuel our shared assumptions about leadership. We must change the narrative that describes vulnerability as a sign of weakness. Whilst in professional circles it is good to project an image of a leader who is at the top of their game, has all the answers and is considered on every occasion, it can leave you chasing an unattainable reality. If you are seen as the all-knowing leader you run the risk of discouraging those you lead from speaking up and offering opinions as they may feel they are not able to live up to the image you project. Sometimes allowing those you lead in so they can get to know other aspects of your personality builds trust and develops culture. It’s reassuring for those you lead to know that you too have days when you are not always the highly polished leader you appear to be.
Unfortunately it’s been built into our DNA that leaders are strong, bold and all knowing. Our leaders are placed on pedestals and from that vantage point it’s not a widely accepted position to show any form of weakness or uncertainty. Whilst there has been a volume of research conducted to dispel this myth there is still that little voice inside each of us that casts enough doubt to make us pause, rethink and try to talk our way out of any situation. If there is one thing I’ve realised throughout the pandemic it’s that we’re pretty vulnerable. I’m not sure many people were able to predict the seismic shift that the pandemic has had on the world. This has really highlighted that some of us are better prepared to deal with uncertainty than others. What I’ve observed is that there are occasions when we must lead from the front and times when we must stand next to those we lead and admit our vulnerabilities.
I’m not suggesting that being vulnerable means you must fully disclose all your faults at all times. It certainly doesn’t mean that you tell those you lead all the details about everything that is happening, or that you fall on the floor, sobbing in an open display of insecurity. You have to have boundaries in your leadership. You need to be able to determine whom to share with and when. There will be certain people whom you can share with more openly than others, it’s about knowing your people and your audience. By displaying a level of vulnerability at the right time you can create a space that feels safe for others to be vulnerable and open to learning. In doing so you establish an environment where it’s ok to share a mistake and use it as a learning opportunity whereby creating a culture that recognises that we all have things to learn, we don’t hide or cover up our mistakes we use them as learning opportunities to ensure they don’t happen again. For this to occur you’ll have to let your guard down and open up. I’ve written previously about working in the discomfort zone, a place where we have doubts, where we question our skill set and we make comparisons with others ability to perform in similar situations. It’s a scary place to be at times, especially when we open ourselves up to criticism. We must avoid the natural reaction to become defensive. In this space you may hear negative feedback from those you lead and it may feel personal. Rather than seeing the feedback as an attack, use it as a learning opportunity by asking questions and digging deeper into responses to gain a better understanding. Trying to understand why this opinion has been formed is highly valuable. Using the information to adjust where necessary demonstrates that vulnerability is a constructive behaviour and creates authentic connections with teams. Putting yourself out there sets a tone for others to follow.
Like most skills, being vulnerable may require a degree of trial and error. It will take time to find your feet and know when and what to share. There will be times when you potentially over share or even share the wrong thing and this is all part of the process. It’s always good to reflect afterwards but don’t beat yourself up, learn from each experience. If you are not sure about stepping into this space I’d encourage you to consider a few things:
Start small – Just dip your toe in the water to see how deep you want to dive in. The last thing you want to do is jump in over your head and feel like you are in too deep.
Try with a trusted colleague – Who are your trusted colleagues that you can test this with? It’s like swimming between the flags with the lifeguards on patrol. They’ll make sure that you get the experience in a safe and productive way.
Seek to understand – Ask questions and get to the heart of the matter, actively listen, clarify and be prepared to answer difficult questions honestly.
Be self-aware – be truthful to yourself about what is going on for you emotionally and recognise how this may influence your behaviour. Try to identify the underlying assumption that is making you feel a particular way.
Modelling vulnerability allows those you lead to do the same which helps to break down silos and the self-protective walls that exist. Keeping up barriers takes energy that can be better spent working together in an environment of collaborative transparency. If you get it right you can develop a sense of belonging that will energise those you lead to reflect on and refine their practice because they will feel safe to do so. Nothing builds credibility like admitting that you don’t know it all. When those you lead see that you too can learn from mistakes it amplifies a learning culture.
You’re in the position because you’ve worked hard to get there and have the attributes to fulfil the role, you don’t have to be the perfect leader on every occasion. Trust your instincts, build your credibility by leading with a level of vulnerability. Remember a courageous leader shows up no matter the situation and responds with authenticity regardless of the personal challenge that’s presented. Vulnerability takes courage. We know that trust grows gradually, demonstrating to those you lead that you are human can only enhance trust in your leadership.
The strange paradox with vulnerability is that when we see others display it we believe they’re courageous, yet displaying it ourselves is like shining a spotlight on our own inadequacies. Showing vulnerability is challenging and managing the emotions that come with being in this space can be confronting especially when we identify the chinks we have in our armour. The reality is we all have weaknesses and admitting this will require a level of courage that may make some of us feel uncomfortable. If you’ve been in leadership long enough you will know that it’s inevitable that your team will come to the realisation that you don’t have all the answers. Understanding this and accepting it is more important than trying to keep up the illusion that we’re infallible. Shifting the language from I have all the answers to I want to get the right ones shows you are open to learning and have a level of maturity in your leadership. Strategically facing your challenges by taking advice and seeking support rather than racing towards the solution speaks volume of your ability to lead. There is a vast difference between being courageous and fearless. The fearless leader charges towards danger whereas the courageous leader weighs up all the evidence and makes an informed decision.
There’s been a great deal of talk about accountability and responsibility lately. As we’ve progressed through this pandemic the notions of being accountable and responsible are increasingly becoming part of the everyday conversation. In the current climate the terms are almost interchangeable. We see a wide variety of public commentary where those that are responsible for certain situations are also held accountable. We often hear leaders of organisations, systems or teams publicly announce that they are accountable for a result and will take full responsibility. Whilst this is admirable, there are slight but subtle differences between accountability and responsibility and I believe as leaders we need to understand this difference in order to clearly identify what it is that motivates those we lead to achieve the results we are looking for.
When we embark on the next iteration of a project or plan it is usually supported by us reviewing results and planning to accelerate what is successful and revising and refining areas that need improvement. This process is typically underpinned by some form of mechanism for measuring our impact in effect holding us accountable for the implementation of our plan. It can be here though where the term accountability runs the risk of changing the narrative. It’s almost like the term ‘accountability’ is being used to apply a consequential monitoring system. The inference that surrounds the discussion about accountability can make it seem like a punitive approach. In this instance accountability seems to remove the decision making processes and restricts the scope of a plan to a set of predetermined boundaries with a lineal path for achieving the outcome. It almost feels like an imposed rule. In short there’s no ownership. We know that as leaders those we lead are more encouraged to drive improvement when they feel they have been part of the planning and part of the design and can clearly see how their efforts will assist in achieving the desired outcome.
We’ve been conditioned to think of accountability as a compliance mechanism to get us to fulfil the demands of those that have authority over us. Through this lens accountability is almost like reliability where the organisation is held accountable for a particular result. Its process driven, fill the bucket with 500 beans, not 499, increase by 10% not 9%. In contrast responsibility is viewed very differently. When we think of responsibility there is a suggestion that it has a greater underlying purpose. Being responsible plays to the greater good, there’s a humanness to responsibility that can be perceived to be lacking in accountability. When we develop a mindset of personal responsibility my view would be that we are holding ourselves accountable. It may sound a little like semantics but I think the mindset of personal responsibility means that we do what we are supposed to do because we care about the result whereas when we achieve through overarching accountability there is a different and potentially less powerful motivation. With accountability there is a perception that we achieve because someone else has told us too. This slight shift almost abdicates our moral purpose and as leaders it’s understanding our purpose that really drives momentum and gets a shift in results. Taking personal responsibility for our choices and owning the role we play in an initiative is critical if we are to achieve successful outcomes.
By having those in our teams choosing to take responsibility we invite people to bring their expertise, skills and experience to the table. We encourage personal mastery, narrowing in on the individual skills and sharing expertise. In doing so we have the ability to identify and guide an individual’s point of implementation which will ultimately assist in driving accountability across our teams. Each individual knows exactly where their touch point is, what is expected and how it contributes to the overall picture. When people own their own choices there is an opportunity for real action. Taking responsibility is a conscious choice. Making that choice and understanding our purpose allows us to leverage the strong emotional attachment that is created when we have skin in the game.
Unlike accountability where feedback usually occurs at the conclusion of an initiative, responsibility allows for ongoing feedback generating refinement and continuous improvement. You know if you are personally on track, discussing your role and your progress with colleagues should become a regular part of the process. Having open and honest conversations about your individual progress towards the achievement of your role in the plan is a vital part of overall achievement. I spoke to a colleague recently about the concept of giving it your best shot. She argues that it’s not your best shot we want, it’s the ability to make the next one better than that and the next even better that that. This idea that as individuals we should always be striving to improve, seeking feedback on individual performance and refining our efforts where possible is at the heart of personal responsibility. You may be able to explain away results to others but you can’t hide the truth from yourself. Working towards all members of our team taking personal responsibility and supporting them to meet it will strengthen our systems and maintain momentum.
Don’t get me wrong we need accountability. As leaders we are ultimately accountable for the success of our plans. Without personal responsibility though we can rationalise accountability away claiming that it’s up to others to meet the targets. Personal responsibility places the onus firmly on us to make it happen. Each individual has to keep on top of their progress in an initiative making them an active participant in its success and not a passive bystander in its failure. This ensures that at every level there are people working towards putting all pieces of the puzzle together, ultimately enhancing the opportunity to reach the goal. We are all accountable, but if you want to amplify results identify and mobilise the personal responsibility that underpins it all. I believe we get more from our team when results come from an intrinsic motivation that is more aligned with our sense of responsibility than a numerical value developed through an accountability lens. Being personally invested brings with it a very different mindset.
As educators we aim to make a positive impact on the lives of students. This is an enormous responsibility. We’re not making chocolate biscuits, if one falls off the production line we can’t just sweep it up and ice the next one. Parents don’t have a spare at home for us to have another crack at. We build great people, that’s our product. As a leader I certainly have an eye of the accountability mechanism I’m working towards but it’s the enormity of the personal responsibility I have to educate students that weighs heavily on me. As we transition from this pandemic accountability has to be strong. We have to intensify our efforts. If we have learned anything from this pandemic it is that we can do things differently, we have the capability and agility to pivot and achieve the impossible. It has dramatically transformed the way we work, the way we interact and the way we engage in our contexts. As we move forward all of us have to think deeply about the personal responsibility we have in our contexts. What is our individual role? How can we strive every day to ensure we are meeting it? How do we hold ourselves accountable? Our collective efforts are needed like never before. We can be divided by issues of accountability or united by purpose, one fuelled by individual responsibility. As I’ve said, I believe we are comfortable with accountability. The challenge we face is ensuring all members of our team fulfil their personal responsibility as this is the foundation for achieving results
Regardless of your profession the outcome is reliant on how well you execute. All the planning, professional learning, strategy and ingenuity in the world will make no difference if you are unable execute with fidelity. When the rubber hits the road it’s the implementation gap that’s hinders progress.
We spend a great deal of time and energy trying to determine why some of our initiatives are not making the gains they are intended to and why some are driving forward exceeding expectations. We analyse, hypothesis, review and try to identify the specific strategies that have been successful. Why is it that this one worked and this one was not as successful? In my opinion we sometimes over-complicate our analysis and need to look at one simple but vital question, how well did we implement? Why is it that the plan we formulate is not always the plan that is implemented? You see ideas are easy, execution is more complex.
We know that successful outcomes can be found when they are underpinned by research. Given the global contentedness we have available today there are not many professions that are not awash with research. In short we are generally able to analyse data, draw conclusions, consider a strategy and find some research to back up our plan. For the most part we have access to high quality professional learning, in most instances we are afforded time to participate in professional learning, partake in collaborative discussion and design a plan of action that we believe best meets the needs of the context within which we work. What then happens in many cases is that we return to our individual environments and begin to implement the plan. Now in many cases we have observations, walk throughs, instructional rounds and opportunities to observe and discus how well we execute; however what happens when no-one is watching. What happens when it gets hard and you’re tired and it’s not going to plan? For many of us we revert back to what we know. I often think about going to the gym. I know how to do the exercises. I’ve had a personal trainer show me how to use the equipment. I know what ‘good form’ looks like when I have to execute an exercise movement or a routine, but when I get tired and no-one is watching the first things that goes out the window is my ability to do the exercises precisely as they are intended, my elbows come out, my legs don’t fully extend, I move a little slower. In other words I take short cuts. Strategies and initiatives do not fail on their own. It’s our disciplined attention to implementation that is the most consistent impediment to success.
The main issue for us to overcome with the implementation of any initiative or strategy is the change in behaviour of those tasked with its implementation. Medical research is littered with countless reports of people not following advice provided for treatment of medical issues. How many of us have started a course of antibiotics only to forget to take the last two or three tablets because we felt better. The World Health Organisation reports that 50% of scripts prescribed for treatment of illnesses are not taken correctly and 40% of patients do not adhere to their treatment regimes. Changing behaviour is difficult even when faced with the prospect of your own health. With this in mind it can be increasingly difficult to change behaviour when implementing new skills and knowledge in a profession.
Overcoming behavioural changes will be critical. There are a few strategies that you can implement that can assist. Firstly you need to have a series of short term wins and you need these quickly. It’s no surprise that immediate positive reinforcement of the desired changes to behaviour are more likely to embed the behavioural changes you are seeking. Its basic psychology. This is where side by side and shoulder to shoulder support is so important. To have your peers working alongside you in your context, guiding, supporting and encouraging allows you to trial the new strategy with the confidence that you have a safety net. If it’s not working as intended you have someone there with you to adapt, refocus and try again. Without this safety net it’s easy to think this won’t work and revert back to previous techniques. Having someone there to assist you and share in your successes is a key factor in successful implementation. Creating conditions that allow for this close level of collaboration will be a vital structure when supporting fidelity of implementation.
Another one of the difficulties with implementation is that the landscape is constantly changing and we need to be agile enough to adapt. When we plan we are planning for a static environment, however as soon as we interact the environment changes and we are faced with new elements that we may not have considered. How then do we overcome this? I believe that this is best supported by process. Disciplined attention to detail and sound processes to guide our implementation allow us to review, realign and re-engage. Whatever your process, framework or guidelines are they need to be clearly understood by all members of the team. These are the guiding principles that will assist with fidelity of implementation. How many times have you heard a sportsperson say that when the chips were down they knew that if they stuck to their processes they could overcome any obstacle. It’s the same when we implement, if we have sound, well thought out processes to guide us then there is less of a chance that we miss the mark on implementation. Alignment of processes across disciplines allows our whole context to understand that this is the expectation for how way we work around here.
Implementation is best supported when being implemented in the right conditions. An environment that supports ongoing improvement, trust, collaboration and accountability supports consistency of implementation. I’ve written previously on the power of culture. Understanding our purpose, creating the customs, beliefs, values and attitudes that focus on continuous improvement should be the foundation. Feedback loops and sound processes that support the culture you are establishing are critically important. Never underestimate the power of an underlying culture that may be resistant to change. Find the early adopters cultivate their skills, support their implementation and celebrate their success. Establishing the right culture is fundamental to fidelity of implementation.
Effective and consistent implementation is complex and multi-directional being impacted from a range of influences. The gap between theory and practice will never be closed through careful planning alone. It’s the on the ground, shoulder to shoulder support and collaborative practice that will make the difference. To change practice we must change behaviour and to do so we must change mindsets, change skill sets and provide processes that support implementation. This is complex work that requires disciplined attention over an extended period of time. When thinking about how you implement initiatives consider whether your implementation has changed practices, routines and structures in a concrete way on the ground and how you know? What concrete evidence do you have that it has had any impact and that it is being implemented consistently? These a key questions that will assist you with reviewing the way you implement within your context. Remember when the rubber hits the road it’s the fidelity of the implementation that makes the difference.
The world has changed. We’ve gone through an enormous shift in how we communicate. We’ve undoubtedly become accustomed to and comfortable with communicating via text messaging, social media and emails. This has been a mainstay for many years now. What has shifted, due to circumstance, is the rise and competency of using technology across platforms to communicate. We’ve actually become very good at it. What it’s highlighted though is the fundamental need and significant benefits of face-to-face interaction.
Humans are social animals. This has never been more evident than now. Whilst many enjoyed isolation and the chance to maybe slow down elements of their world, this only lasted for so long. Ultimately there came a yearning for contact with others. The virtual world has its place and is here to stay but nothing compares to a real community, spending physical time with people in a place with shared purpose, collaboration and support. The feeling of being in the physical presence of others can never be replicated online.
I’ve written previously about how we must learn from the last few months and identify how we can keep the best of the technological revolution. This period has certainly given us time to master the tools at our disposal. Over the last few months we have started to understand how powerful technology can be in allowing us to collaborate virtually. We’ve Zoomed, Teamed, Skyped, shared on Google Drive, connected in hangouts, brainstormed on Trello. There has been a widespread embracement of technology as an effective and efficient tool. Those who may not normally contribute to meetings have found their voice and stepped out of the shadows, they’ve found a way to overcome whatever it was that may have held them back in the physical meeting world. We’ve found more efficiency in splitting into virtual breakout rooms with counters timing us and bringing us back to share our contributions. I’ve noticed in the virtual world that the more people can actually see each other the greater the virtual collaboration. The ability to see the person you are connecting with is so powerful. The visual provides connection. The one common denominator across all platforms has been has been the presence of people. Regardless of the tools there is no collaboration without people and without relationships.
There has certainly been a change to the way we work. Many of our professional interactions have now transitioned online. In our online professional world we don’t have to carve out travel time, we have the flexibility to move from meeting to meeting instantaneously and then exit straight into another body of work. There is no doubt that this is more time efficient and has the potential to increase our productivity. At times, I have enjoyed working without the distractions of a physical office, the ability to concentrate and maximise the cognitive load without noise has had its upside. At times though the isolation has left me reaching out feeling professionally isolated from a collaborative space. The ability to walk past a colleague and have the incidental conversation, the opportunity to bounce ideas around whilst waiting for a coffee, or standing by the photocopier, to walk into a colleagues office and be able to brainstorm or problem solve and then reach out again when that next thought comes to mind are parts of the physical office space that have the potential to enhance our creativity. When new ideas start to emerge you can actually feel the energy in a room, the enthusiasm increases, the vision builds and the motivation to act becomes palpable. These elements combine to make the physical office space an effective working environment that is potentially lacking in the virtual world.
I acknowledge that professionally, the use of technology has brought people together by allowing us to easily connect with colleagues through the click of a button. We are not completely isolated. The opportunity to easily connect across geographical boundaries has been extremely beneficial. What I miss from the physical meeting space though is the ability to read the room and get a feeling for the conversation or the mood of participants. We know that research suggests that 93% of communication is non-verbal. In the online environment it’s difficult to identify the micro elements of body language, a shift in energy, the non-verbals that allow you to adjust your delivery are components lost in our online world. It’s difficult to tell if you are capturing the audience, if you are able to maintain their attention, the temptation for participants to multi task can be overpowering regardless of how good your message is. The research suggests that 65% of your audience are sending emails, checking social media, eating or marking off their task list whilst you are delivering statics. The social nature of our make-up requires you to interact, ask questions and get feedback to keep people engaged and on task. This is a challenge for our online presentations and again demonstrates the power of face to face.
At some level almost every person will be looking to embed the use of technology in their professional world and use the lessons learnt to enhance what they do. Technology used correctly has the power to enhance relationships, we must ensure though, that it doesn’t take them over. Having our heads buried in a device can have a negative impact.
Quite often when we have to deliver an important message with a degree of detail we default to using email. It’s quick, it’s effective, it captures all the information and is an efficient method. It is can also be couched in professional language that can appear to be quite impersonal. At times perception plays a part as the recipient tries to ‘read between the lines’ or misinterprets the message, the tone of your voice and your body language reinforces your message and underlines your intent. I challenge you next time you are going to send that email pick up the phone and have a conversation or better still when permitted and if you are able, walk through the building, find them and have the conversation face to face. To tailor your message to the recipient in person is a highly effective strategy. I guarantee it will be more productive, more enjoyable and potentially more empowering for the person receiving the message as they can clarify, question and deepen their understanding.
In our fast paced digital age we need to slow down and take time to interact in person. Successful leadership requires personal interactions. We are in a people-centric profession. The personal interactions that build a sense of community set the foundation for trust and ultimately this is the bedrock of relationships. As we all know the 3Rs in education are so important. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships. Technology has its place but it will never replace human connection.
One of the most difficult things in life is trying to restart once momentum is lost. Our current circumstances will end and pave the way for a new normal. In returning to the new normal we have an opportunity to be actively involved in carefully constructing what it could look like. There is always some catalyst for change that leads us to develop new habits and build a new mindset. We’ve had the most significant catalyst in living memory which required us to transform our education delivery overnight. For years the keen, the interested and the technologically savvy have sung the praises of using technology as an effective integrated tool in teaching and learning. Many of us have attended professional learning and come away with a quick energy boost or tinkered on the edges of a particular platform or software package to give something a go……. for a while. Far too often though we find ourselves back in the grind with little time to really engage and see how we can effectively implement technology into our daily practice.
Today, those we serve are immersed in technology in nearly all aspects of their lives. Under the current climate this has proven to be even more so. This digital revolution we have witnessed in education has provided a new way of delivering content and engaging with our students and staff. We now have the capacity to learn at any time, be it online, offline, in classrooms or in our homes. How can we harness this opportunity that has been created? It has often been said that out of adversity comes innovation. I believe we have a once in a generation opportunity to develop a technological response that could enhance the powerful work we do.
As we move back into a more traditional approach of learning it is time to think about how we might utilise the current momentum to strategically adopt our enhanced modes of education delivery. I’m not suggesting we let technology take over. There is no substitute for face to face teaching, I believe the last few weeks have highlighted the power of human interaction and connection in our work. The power of face to face teaching can never be understated. However we are perfectly placed to explore how technology can assist with personalised learning as a supportive tool rather than a bell and whistle to generate enthusiasm. We have an opportunity to continue to provide the high-quality learning options we have been delivering as an additional support to our work. We must capitalise on this technological revolution and support the ongoing collaboration of our teams to consistently engage with useful technology platforms that complement face to face teaching and learning.
Think of the potential now to capture point in time information and readjust our learning to meet the exact needs of students by using technology consistently in assessment practices. We have a new problem of practice to solve – “How do we consistently use technology across systems to enhance our assessment practices”. At present the most consistent use of technology in assessment by big systems it to mark large banks of learning to determine what a student has retained over a period of time. We are now in a position to think about how we can use it in an ongoing manner, to locate a student’s current knowledge, understanding and skills to support planning for learning and teaching. I don’t see it as a way to replace the teacher but rather a highly agile and adaptive tool that can enhance and support the implementation of curriculum. Technology provides an easy and efficient way of giving feedback to students, and managing marking and assessment. Having information available all in the one place enables us to collaborate more easily with colleagues and share student progress at any time.
Almost overnight we created online learning spaces for our students and staff, spaces that we never imagined were possible. The level of innovation and growth in the confidence of utilising technology tools for teaching and learning from our teachers has been absolutely staggering. I’ve heard teachers talking about the quality of the work some students have been able to produce in this new learning environment free from possible distractions. There has also been an opportunity for some incredibly specific feedback delivered in the most innovative of ways. I witnessed teaching staff who have thrived in this environment with a new found freedom to create. We have unearthed a new generation of educational experts who have been waiting for the right moment to showcase their talents. How will each school capitalise of this expertise and utilise it going forward. We must empower these technological leaders so they can continue to innovate and create. I’m not implying that we were not creative previously, however you have to admit that the COVID-19 education revolution brought teacher creativity to a whole new level – on mass.
What are the implications now for our learning spaces? We’ve proven that we can learn without 4 walls, a desk and all of us in the one space. Do we continue to use a mix of online and face to face? Have we created an expectation from our students that we bring this level of creativity and flexibility to the physical space we now occupy? As digital natives our students will possibly welcome these innovations and actively seek them as we return to the new normal. Studies have shown that after a significant event people exit with a boost of energy and increased enthusiasm. They ride the wave of inspiration and goodwill. Slowly though people return back to their normal routine. Our challenge is to strike now to keep what worked and integrate it into our practice before we revert back.
We know that there is some complexity when it comes to access of technology, not everyone has been afforded the same opportunity to engage online, however this too will pass in time. Technology is not going away and if anything access to technology will only increase not fade. Intelligent systems will be looking to see how they increase accessibility as a result of this pandemic. How can we reduce disadvantage to ensure equity of access? I believe we will start to re-evaluate how we distribute technological resources to ensure equity of access for all. This will be a significant challenge, but if we have proven anything through this pandemic we have proved that we are up to meeting challenges.
We know that for many this new online world has opened up new avenues for keeping parents much more engaged with how their children are progressing and provided new methods of communication. We have the potential for a wider reach into the community but must use this intelligently to establish clear protocols and boundaries to use it in its most effective form.
We’ve been able to come up with solutions that have been truly innovative and so creative in their delivery. If we are to keep the momentum going we must support rather than manage, we must be fearless, determined and optimistic to create this new normal and not revert back. We are perfectly positioned to develop system wide strategic plans for implementing and integrating technology. It’s critical we build on the momentum and invest in professional learning to incorporate technology that enhances the learning process and build on the current momentum. The new normal is exciting. It’s time to build on our successes and accelerate momentum toward our new normal to explore what might be possible.
Uncertainty is a great catalyst for learning. When we are faced with uncertainty a signal is sent to the brain that something is not right, that something is different. There is often a feeling of discomfort and a range of emotions that accompany uncertainty. In our current climate uncertainty is possibly the only element that is certain. Our current global challenge has provided the most uncertain period in living memory and has left many people in an unfamiliar environment where they have been forced outside their comfort zones. Many of us have found ourselves operating in the discomfort zone. This is a place where, whilst uncomfortable, we are open to new learning and if we act on it, accept it and wrestle with the challenge we have a significant opportunity to expand what may be possible.
The discomfort zone is a place that challenges how people view a system, a behaviour, a belief, an attitude or a plan. Being in the discomfort zone interrupts how we would normally deal with or behave towards a certain situation or in a particular circumstance. It poses enough challenge that it forces you stop and pause. In some cases it seems insurmountable which can lead to us finding a work around or in some instances ignoring it altogether and refusing to engage. Those that choose this path are closed to learning at this stage and will find it difficult to engage with the predicament. Currently, there is no ignoring the discomfort, it’s worldwide and how we choose to sit with discomfort may be a defining moment.
In many circumstances skilled leaders have used the discomfort zone as part of the development process for those they lead. Through targeted conversations they draw people to realisations, shifts in perception and possibly self-awareness of how values, attitudes and beliefs impact on behaviour. By having these conversations at the right time with the right person you may be able to help create a new awareness and see growth and change by developing an agreed course of action. For this to be most successful the person has to be open to change, feel safe and be ready for it. However given our current climate change is here whether we are ready or not forcing us deep into the discomfort zone.
While it may not feel like it at the moment, this period of discomfort will go a long way in building your leadership skill set. No one likes to feel uncomfortable especially when others are looking to you for guidance and answers. For many of us when we get into an uncomfortable situation in professional settings we start to second guess our ability. We have doubts, we question our skill set, we make comparisons with others ability to cope in this setting. A flood of questions wash over us, are we intelligent enough? Do we have enough knowledge in this area? What is someone asks a question I can’t answer? What if I don’t have a solution? This leads us down the next path where we start to think of reasons why we shouldn’t take on the challenge. The fear of making a mistake in front of our peers or those we lead can be crippling. This negative self-talk, this skewed perception, this sometimes visceral emotional response is a result of being in the discomfort zone. As leaders we like a plan, some certainty, there is comfort in knowing we have control over the direction. It can be extremely challenging to lead in uncertain times, when you don’t have all the answers. But we need perspective, this is not excruciating pain that is never ending. It is for the most part a moment in time, a series of events that are punctuated with briefs moments of discomfort.
Moving into the discomfort zone has become increasingly challenging in modern society. We have shifted from a landscape of challenge to one where we have so many supportive structures in place that we limit our interaction with discomfort. We have unintentionally eroded some of our natural resilience to discomfort. On a personal level we surround ourselves with like-minded people, our social media feeds are made up of those that we agree with, our posts are highlights carefully crafted to reflect a particular image, photos are cropped and retaken to ensure we are comfortable with what we are portraying. In some ways the ‘everyone is a winner’ and ‘everyone gets a ribbon’ mentality that has gripped our society has impacted on our ability to work in discomfort. These carefully constructed environments limit our potential to grow and explore what is possible.
There are many who try to resist discomfort. In doing so they deny themselves an important opportunity to see things with fresh eyes, to break away from underlying assumptions and perspectives that may be limiting their view or potential opportunities. The challenge is to persist and move past that feeling of wanting to return back to what was comfortable. It’s a valuable exercise to listen to your internal dialogue during times of discomfort. What thoughts are you having? Are you looking for ways out? Are you using language that escalates your feelings of discomfort? Do you have a physical reaction? Does your pulse race? Do you get a sinking feeling in your stomach? How do you manage this? Making yourself aware and drawing your attention to your reaction is the first step in overcoming it. Remember emotions are responses to stimuli and are no reason not to take on a challenge.
Once your mind settles into the discomfort of a challenge a change happens. As the work starts to unfold it actually becomes increasingly comfortable and possibly exciting as you lean into the challenge and explore what is possible. Learning to be comfortable with discomfort may be the most important skill we take out of this pandemic. Sure, no one likes feeling uncomfortable, but think of the incredible work you and your teams have been able to achieve whilst operating in the most uncertain of environments. Discomfort forces us to view our circumstances from a completely different perspective and stretches us to imagine what might be possible. If we learn no other lesson maybe we could inject some unpredictability into our leadership challenges to normalise the feeling of discomfort. By doing this we can ride the wave and understand that it will end.
What is it that you will take away from this period that will become the new normal for you? What will you let go of that you have done without? What will you continue to use, do or act on? How will you manage another period of uncertainty when it comes, because it will come, maybe not of this magnitude but you will face uncertain situations in the future. We are now deep into this challenge. It would be interesting to spend some time reflecting on how you have responded. Did you lean in or did you try to swerve?
In times of uncertainty great leaders step forward. They know that in periods of complexity, in times of adversity they must step up and lead. This is when your true leadership skill set will be put to the test. Your reputation is what others think of you, your character is what you truly are, and now more than ever is a test of your character. Our current situation will test the depth and breadth of our leadership capabilities like never before and I believe we are ready.
In times of uncertainly it can be easy to shift into management mode. Management usually occurs when we are able to work logically and methodically through a routine, process or system. Now is the time to lead, not just manage. We need to step into the complexity and provide guidance to those around us on how to deal with uncertainty.
Complexity is a term used across a wide range of areas. We don’t always think about the same thing when we talk about complexity. In the normal use of the term we might say I have to solve a complex problem, but what we actually mean is that it’s complicated. There is actually a way to solve a complicated problem using the current skill set and processes that we have or have access to. Complexity is a much more dynamic concept that involves reacting to situations as they unfold. Complex situations are dynamic, contextual and ever evolving. Leading in complex times is really another way of saying we are leading through uncertainty.
In times of complexity our leadership decisions can be more important and potentially have more consequence for those we lead than under normal conditions. Those we lead are looking to us for reassurance, guidance and support. Knowing your people and understanding how they will react to uncertainty, to new learning and how they can draw on system and network supports will be crucial. We cannot control the external influences on those we lead, but we can anticipate how our people may react and how we can best support. Using our knowledge of our people, our leadership intuition and our understanding of past behaviours will be key in this area. As a leader you know your context, you know your key players, you know how to leverage off their expertise and how to mobilise your teams. Building the capacity of those you lead to cope with new limitations and manage through new transitions will be a vital element of your leadership.
As an adaptive leader leading through uncertainty, it is imperative that you try to see the overall picture of the current state. You need to be able to pull back from the immediate response and gain a high level perspective, we often talk about getting on the balcony. Now is the perfect time to get a balcony view and see how all work streams are travelling. This allows you to get a clearer understanding of the current operation so you can enhance successful processes and redirect those that may be missing the mark. It is easy to get caught up in the momentum and jump into decision making and hands on action. In times of complexity it is often a long game therefore we must build capacity that will assist in sustaining momentum. Once we establish our current state and have our big picture we shouldn’t be micro managing but rather relying on those we lead to do their jobs well. Work closely with those you trust, allow them to make decisions, support and guide them where necessary by building their capacity and confidence. In doing so you will assist in maintaining momentum for the long game.
Currently we have so many elements interacting continuously there is no way we can rely on a simple cause and effect relationship. It is important to continually map the present to identify what is happening now and see what we can do within current parameters. To do this we need to understand what each element is, we can’t make assumptions. We must draw on our flexibility and agile nature to pause, reflect and realign. It is critical that we monitor how our circumstances evolve and reassess. It’s difficult to define a future state under current circumstances but as an adaptive leader you are in the practice of mobilising people to tackle tough challenges and thrive. You will need to draw deep on your skill set in outlining a compelling vision, building enthusiasm and inspiring action to lead through.
As an adaptive leader you must ensure that the people you lead become part of the solution by changing behaviours and developing new skills. In unprecedented times there needs to be some shift in our thinking. Adaptive leadership therefore is about facilitating change that builds on the current foundations to unleash capacity. We have been presented with an opportunity. An opportunity to really innovate and create a game changer. What I have witnessed is a culture of collaboration where those we lead are united in a common goal. We are facing an exercise in creative thinking where we are focused on thinking about the previously unthinkable. The momentum that has been generated is creating a culture and set of core values that is binding us together. This brings with it a sense of confidence that we will work our way through the difficult period, whilst not understating the enormity of the task, we have the skills, the capability and the expertise in our teams to make a significant and positive impact.
As a leader in times of uncertainty it’s important to be visible, present and available. Those we lead need to see you working alongside them, actively listening to them and being available to assist them when needed. Making yourself available to connect with those you lead, being empathetic, understanding and accessible is critical in times of uncertainty. Your steady presence will be invaluable. Being always present can present itself with challenges especially in times of increasing pressure, with rapidly changing circumstances that require quick and decisive decisions. In these situations leaders must maintain transparency, be very clear that they are acting on current information and that this may be subject to change. You must discipline yourself to think only in terms of solutions. Encouraging your team to be solutions focused can create and sustain a sense of community that is more important than ever.
As leaders it is critical that you are the calming influence despite how you may be feeling internally. To do this there are some key techniques that I have found useful:
Think today – It’s about one day at a time, what is in front of me at this moment in this time. Whilst we must maintain a long term strategy, sometimes the enormity of the task requires us to focus on one issue at a time. Work through them, be methodical, you’ve done it before.
Acceptance – We need to accept that complexity is difficult. As a leader you need to make peace with uncertainty and understand that nothing remains static, we are constantly evolving. Bringing this understanding to those you lead can be a significant mindset shift. This will allow you to deal with the unexpected although you may not know what it is, you know that it could present itself at any time.
Reflection – Building in time to reflect on decisions as more information comes to hand and regularly debriefing with those we lead is critical in building trust. Taking time to reflect personally on how you are travelling is also vitally important. No leader can do it alone, reach out to your support network.
Work Together– Suspend judgement, listen to ideas, be open to new ways of working and thinking. It’s OK to disagree but now more than ever we need to come together with a united voice. Will we always get it right, possibly not, but publicly criticising and casting blame serves no purpose. Working together on a solution is the only way forward.
There is no doubt that this is a time that we will look back on and learn from. As leaders we must understand that those we are leading are observing us and will often look to emulate our behaviour. We must ensure that we deliver a leadership model that they’ll actively choose to follow. We must lead by example. Set the standard that you want to see in your team. Look after them, nurture them and lead through this like never before.