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Leading in a Storm

Disruptive situations can present unusual leadership opportunities

THE WORLD IS going crazy around us due to the coronavirus pandemic. Things are shut down, disrupted, and unpredictable. No one can say how long this will last.

The more stressful and anxious the time, the more people look to leaders to show the way. Besides that vital role, odd as it may seem, severely disrupted occasions like this also provide valuable opportunities for wise leaders who know how to exploit them. In this article I will suggest some ways you can step up.

Manage your own fears first

Fear is a natural human emotion, its purpose being to protect us from objective danger. Emotions, however, respond to whatever is going on in our minds, regardless of whether what we are thinking is real or imaginary. Emotions have no intellect, meaning that they cannot tell the difference between fact and fantasy or between past, present, and future.

This means we can make ourselves an emotional basket case through the application of our imaginations alone. In a time of widespread fear and uncertainty, we are especially prone to this. We pass around anxiety like the virus itself.

I’ve often said, “a head cold in the captain becomes an epidemic in the crew,” meaning leaders’ attitudes and emotions get multiplied among their followers. That’s why a leader’s first responsibility is self-management.

Concentrate on what you can control, not on what you can’t

A simple but powerful tool I have used for many years is a diagram that distinguishes between what you can control and what you cannot (see diagram below).

The large circle is called the Sphere of Concern. It represents everything in your life you care anything about, from the trivial (a bad hair day, a broken nail) to the mega-important (the national economy, the health of your family members).

Within that large circle is a smaller one, the Sphere of Control. Whatever we care about, there is always a smaller sphere within it that we do have control over. The relative size varies from issue to issue.

In a relationship, for example, your Sphere of Control is 50% as large as your Sphere of Concern. You have control over your own attitude, words, and actions. You have no control, however, over the attitude, words, and actions of another person.

In many issues we have essentially zero control: The current pandemic, the actions of the government, the behavior of neighbors.

Between the two circles is a gap I call “The Anxiety Zone.” In that region we care about issues but cannot control them. You could also label this area “The Helpless Zone,” because here there is nothing you can do about the issue you care about.

Because of the way our imaginations and emotions operate, it is possible to think about, worry about, talk about, obsess over things we care about but have no control over. This is the road to impotent and meaningless anxiety. It is a complete waste of time and energy.

On the other hand, the more we spend our time and energies within the Sphere of Control, the more effective, the more productive, and the happier we are. Concentrating on what we can control and letting go of what we can’t is the road to a more consistent and happy life.

Teach these principles to your team

To keep your team productive, share these principles and keep steering them back to what they can do something about. You’ll find that the higher the stress, the more people drift back to helpless anxiety. That’s why one of the most important roles of a leader is teaching people how to think about things. One of my leadership propositions is this: The power of leadership is the ability to define reality.

Your attitude must be optimistic

The attitude of leadership is optimism. I totally agree with Marcus Buckingham:

"Properly defined, the opposite of a leader isn’t a follower. The opposite of a leader is a pessimist."

I am convinced that it is impossible to lead people effectively if you tend to think pessimistically. However, it is important to have an accurate definition of optimism. Optimism does not mean thinking everything is rosy, or that everything will work out, or ignoring or denying negative reality.

Optimism means looking at problems right in the eye with the intention of doing what we can to solve them; if not solve, then at least to improve them. Optimism means the confidence and determination that, regardless of the difficulty of the challenge, we can meet it and prevail in the end.

That is what people are looking for from their leaders in this present crisis.

Your communications must be both realistic and optimistic. Example:

“No one knows how long this situation will last. The weeks, perhaps months, ahead will be a challenge demanding that all of us manage ourselves and our efforts as well as possible under unusual constraints. This is going to be uncertain and hard [= realism] …

“But we have a great team. We’ve done hard things before. I believe Americans will step up and meet this thing and prevail, and so will we. If there’s any country in the world whose national economy is equipped to bounce back, it’s ours. I believe we’ll get through this and rebuild and prosper [= optimism].

From that foundation, you can proceed to lead people to focus on what they can do.

Frequent transparent communication

The President and his Covid-19 team are demonstrating every day the way to handle a crisis. By their daily briefings they are keeping the American public informed about the current state and developments.

Know this about human beings: When people don’t know what’s going on, they will try to imagine what they think is going on, and almost always imagine the worst. That tendency is magnified the greater the anxiety. The best antidote for anxiety for your people is frequent transparent communication.

On “frequent”: When you think you’ve communicated enough, even when you’re sick of communicating, communicate some more.

On “transparent”: Treat people like grownups. Tell them the straight truth: What you know and don’t know … about bad news ahead … remind them that this is going to be a loooong term situation. Whatever you know, pass it on to them.

Without frequent transparent information, even adults begin acting like kids in the back seat: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” You must keep reminding them to settle in for the long haul.

Take advantage of interrupted habits

Forced disruptions like today’s can bear hidden opportunities. For one, it compels a break in habits. Most of us get into a routine of going to the office, how we go about our day, meeting patterns, and such.

This is a great time to do some blank sheet thinking: When we go back to a more normal life, how would you ideally organize things? Should you change how you approach your work? Should you change meeting patterns? Change is far easier during a time of disruption. Do some creative thinking.

Take this situation as an opportunity for self-improvement

For many of us, this enforced separation means getting back hours of time: Hours spent commuting, traveling out of town, driving to appointments. How many people complain that they have no time for themselves? Guess what? Now you do!

Assuming you’re not so anxious that you can’t think clearly (if so, return to the first principle in this article), what a great time to do things like:

  • Reading professional literature

  • Pleasure reading

  • Doing creative work ─ about your profession, practice an instrument, write an article, perhaps a book

Leaders are the ones people look to during times of uncertainty and fear. The present situation can be your opportunity. Li

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