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Leading in a Storm

There are both challenges and opportunities in turbulent times

Li #241 Leading in a Storm
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FOUR YEARS AGO, the world was going crazy. Due to the pandemic, everything was shut down, disrupted, and shocking. That unique crisis is now in the rearview mirror, but it illustrates what any leader and team can encounter in terms of unpredictable and daunting situations.


The more stressful and anxious the times, the more people look to their leaders for answers and guidance. That is a serious challenge in itself. However, severely disruptive occasions also provide valuable opportunities for wise leaders. Here are some ways you can step up in a storm.


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 any of us can make ourselves an emotional basket case through the application of imagination alone. In a time of widespread fear and uncertainty, we are especially prone to this. And it’s contagious! We can pass around anxiety like a virus, even more so if you’re a leader.


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 learned many years ago is a diagram that distinguishes between what you can control and what you cannot.

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, your health and that of your family members).


Within that large circle is a smaller one, the Sphere of Control. Whatever we care about, there is almost 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: 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 zero control, such as the pandemic or government actions.


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 to control the issue you care about, no matter how intensely.


Because of the way our imaginations and emotions operate, it is possible to think about, worry about, talk about, and obsess over things we care about but have no control over. This is the road to impotent and meaningless anxiety. Fear and anxiety tend to turn off human rational thinking, causing hyper-focusing on the problem, and paralysis in terms of action.


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 secret to functioning in hard times.


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. One of the most important roles of a leader, especially during a storm, is teaching people how to think about things. In other words, the power of leadership is the ability to define reality.


Your attitude must be optimistic


The essential attitude of leadership is optimism. Marcus Buckingham well said,


“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 to do what we can to solve them, or at least to improve them. It means the confidence and determination that, regardless of the difficulty of the challenge, we can meet it and prevail in the end. Thus, optimism is “realism with confidence.


That is what people are looking for from their leaders in a time of crisis.


Your personal presence and communication must be optimistic, meaning both realistic and confident. Example:


“We don’t know how long this situation will last. The weeks and months ahead will be challenging, demanding that all of us manage ourselves, our focus, and our efforts as well as we can. You can expect this time to be uncertain and hard.” [= realism] …


“But we have a great team. We’ve done hard things before. I still believe in us, our leadership, and our mission. I believe we’ll get through this and prosper if we pull together and continue to work.” [= confidence].


With such a message and attitude, you can redirect people to focus on what they can do. Expect to do it frequently, not once and done.


Frequent transparent communication


When people don’t know what’s going on, they will try to imagine what 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 long-term situation. Whatever you know and are at liberty to share, pass it on to them.


Be prepared to lead


The demands of leading in a storm means you can’t afford to be unprepared and “wing it.” You must keep your wits about you, being always aware of your personal presentation and every communication. Thoughtless words and actions can undo a lot of progress quickly.


Keep emphasizing self-maintenance and self-improvement


When people are experiencing great stress and anxiety, they tend to stray from their usual self-maintenance practices. They isolate from others and neglect things like exercise or reading, but this is a great mistake. Stressful times require greater emphasis on self-maintenance, mental stimulation, and rest. Otherwise, you can expect your and your people’s creativity and performance to drop.


Make it a point to keep in shape mentally, emotionally, and physically. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “How can I do those things at a time like this?” “Times like this” are exactly when you must focus on keeping yourself and your people strong.


Change can be easier during a time of disruption because it forces interruptions of habitual behaviors. It can mean a fresh start, so do some creative thinking: When this storm has passed (because it will), how should you ideally organize things? Should you change how you approach your work? Should you change meeting patterns?


Along with adequate exercise and rest, you and your team will remain mentally sharp and motivated by occasionally focusing on things outside of work: Reading, watching informative or entertaining videos, time with friends and family. You’ll work better when you return. Marathon runners pace themselves for the long haul. So should you.


Leaders are the ones people look to during times of uncertainty and fear. The present storm can be your opportunity to demonstrate your leadership ability and bring your team through it successfully. Li


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