The last couple of weeks have been the most difficult we’ve seen in years.
COVID-19 and all of its ramifications. Concerns about an energy market crash. A pending global recession.
This is a difficult time for leaders. It can be easy to either overreact, or to stick your head in the sand and hope things go away. If you have spent much time on social media, you have seen many examples of both approaches.
In my work with leaders, one thing that often comes up is how to show up in the face of uncertainty. How do you know what to do in the face of an uncertain future?
Perhaps more importantly, how do you know how to be as you face that uncertainty?
I don’t know what the future holds, and I don’t know what actions you should be taking right now. So much of this will be about where you are in the country and what your customers, suppliers, employees and communities need from you. But I do know some of the traps that leaders can fall into when they are faced with complex and uncertain times. Here are three things you can focus on in the coming weeks.
Manage your state
Your physical state determines the world you see. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, we go into fight or flight. Notice if this is happening to you—if your breath gets short, if your chest or throat or shoulders get tight, if any of the signs that you are “triggered” are present.
When we are in the SNS, the options we see narrow. We are less able to think holistically and more likely to react mindlessly. We are also less able to connect to other people. The more you can clear your head, the more you can move toward an optimal focus and flow, the less likely you are to make a rash mistake, or to simply freeze in the face of the challenges in front of you.
Do your best not to make any important decisions from the triggered state. Breathe deeply. Maintain your mediation or yoga or martial arts practice. Continue to exercise regularly. Minimize caffeine and alcohol. And make sure you get as much high quality sleep as you can.
Understand that we are in a complex environment
Complicated things can be figured out in advance. Complex things, like weather and viruses and people, cannot. Complex things require small experiments and the willingness to shift course, to change your mind, as you get better information. Remember that you are choosing in each moment, and that no choice you make has to be locked in. Don’t be afraid of looking foolish if changing course is what is called for.
We do not know what is going to happen next. But by being flexible and willing to experiment, we can find our way.
Know your traps
Jennifer Garvey Berger writes of five “mindtraps” that affect us all, especially as leaders.
While I recommend that you look at all of them, there are three that seem particularly appropriate right now.
- Your desire for a simple story blinds you to a real one. There is so much information out there right now, and it is human nature to want a simple answer. “It’s no worse than a cold,” is a simple answer. “We have to shut down everything,” is another. The truth is likely more nuanced and more variable, and less clear. And the truth may also change as this situation evolves.
- Just because it feels right doesn’t mean it is right. Your gut may be giving you signals. And you may be tempted to follow them. But gut feelings typically work in your area of expertise (see Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink for a discussion of this), when you can see holistically and react to patterns at a subconscious level. When you are outside your area of expertise (as most of us are right now), something that looks like a gut feeling can just be a triggered reaction (see the discussion of managing your state above).
- Being trapped in your current identity as a leader can keep you from what’s needed next. For example, if your identity is “I am decisive leader,” you may not feel you can change a decision even when the data suggest you should. Rapidly changing times may call on your to be a different kind of leader. It’s important to recognize that you might need to change before you can change your mind.
What does the future hold?
I don’t know. But I do hope that these practices and perspectives will be helpful as you navigate it.
May you be safe and focused in the next few weeks.