Care, Curiosity and Exceptional Leadership in Corona Times

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By Lisa Slayton; reprinted from The Wholeness Journey.

When I launched my own consulting practice a year ago, it was a time of real disruption for me and a season of transition. Stepping away from the old thing without the new thing being fully formed.

As has often been my practice when I am navigating something new, I go into a time of deep immersion learning, even as I continue to move into the new thing. A bit of “writing the instruction manual while flying the plane.” ( I am an Enneagram 8, after all.)

My learning journey took me towards a number of things including a coaching certification in the Designing Your Life vocational discernment process, engaging premium content from David Snowden and the folks at the Cognitive Edge,  focused on navigating complexity, and  experiencing the second of two immersion experiences with Change Leadership Wizard Daryl Connor.

And so, over the last year I have leveraged my learning and integrated it into resources and tools for my clients. Much of this seems to be particularly relevant and useful for the strange times we are now living in and through

This week I had the chance to collaborate with two trusted colleagues around how I am serving and advising my clients and friends in Corona times.

Here are some highlights:

Seek Opportunities without Becoming Opportunistic

If you had to describe the current crisis as an opportunity for exceptional leadership, how would you describe it?

Well first let’s just acknowledge the reality of the crisis. It is a big one, it is unprecedented and It is far from over. In the familiar words of Jim Collins we must first confront the Brutal Facts, not all of which we can even know yet. But as we glimpse bits and pieces of the realities we are now facing, It is from THAT place that we can begin to seek out the opportunities. I also believe and am seeing those who are truly searching for and creating the real opportunities and those who are being opportunistic. There is a distinct difference. The exceptional leaders will be firmly grounded in reality, while demonstrating and communicating hope. False optimism will not be believed. Fear-based behavior will paralyze and take an organization down or community down. And the critical thing to listen for in the exceptional leader is one small phrase: “I don’t know” which demonstrates both courage and vulnerability.

Choose Effectiveness over Efficiency

As we examine the past couple of weeks with remote working, how do you anticipate a new era of “virtualization” will positively and negatively affect organizational culture?

The positive is, as one client said to me late last week, zoom meetings can be more efficient, they don’t take as long. And that is true. They still allow us some measure of contact, but there is not much wasted time. You don’t spend the first 15 minutes of the meeting chatting while people get their coffee and get settled. I think we will learn where we can virtualize to optimize time and efficiency, but we are also already seeing that it is far from a replacement for real human interaction.

The shadow of that is that we will try to cram ever more interactions in to our day in the name of efficiency and the reality is that if we do not give ourselves room to process each meeting we will actually become less productive, less efficient. I think we will also become more transactional in our exchanges, and less relational. And what we all need right now, whether we can acknowledge it or not, is relationship.

Creating space for true connection will be a crucial success factor to sustaining or building a healthy culture in the short term, so that when we do come back together we have not lost, but rather built connection and cohesion.

Create Space for Innovation, Not Business as Usual

What advice are you giving to your clients to anticipate, prepare and plan to create environments that can grow and prosper despite distress?

Colleagues of mine who run an entrepreneurial incubator and accelerator published an essay about two weeks ago, entitled Leading Beyond the Blizzard: why every organization is now a start up.  In it they used the metaphor of the Blizzard, the Winter and the Ice Age.

Their helpful purpose was to communicate that we are currently in the blizzard, reacting and responding. But if these conditions of shelter in place continue for longer than a week or two, and it looks like they will, then we enter a long winter and our planning needs to take a different perspective. So how do we capture the ingenuity and creativity of everyone in our organization to think through how we adjust adapt and innovate to move forward differently. The truth is that some businesses will not survive this. That is hard and sad and true. But many can and will if they create space for new things to emerge.

Pursue Curiosity over Command/Control

In my experience, leaders generally default to command/control style when they are in crisis and may miss out on the benefits and innovation that can come from teams.  What is your perspective on this?

This absolutely true. Leaders, most anyway, are problem solvers which often requires a command/control style. And this is good and necessary. BUT NOT ENOUGH and must quickly pass if they are going to realize potential and see where the opportunities lie for their organization and community. I read this great piece this week in a Forbes article:

A leader’s immediate job is not to discover patterns but to stanch the bleeding. A leader must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to transform the situation from chaos to complexity, where the identification of emerging patterns can both help prevent future crises and discern new opportunities.

This means that what your organization needs from you right now is fast and effective decision-making and communication, top-down, until order is restored. Establish the necessary (temporary) policy changes around things like compensation, travel and work-from-home, allocate resources to protect your people, make sure there’s infrastructure for people to be working remotely, and so on. There is no time to ask for input.

When the Chaos Abates, Leaders Must Shift to Navigating Complexity

Once strong leadership has helped the organization stanch the bleeding and calm the immediate crisis (likely a few days or weeks), you will shift from dealing with chaos to dealing with complexity. Once in that domain, where unpredictability and flux continue but instructive patterns can emerge (as Snowden says), you must recognize that you still can’t know answers in advance, but best answers and decisive action will emerge if you engage the right mix of people in planning. This is the time to set aside command-and-control for collaboration. As Snowden says,

Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed. They will discern many opportunities for innovation, creativity, and new business models.

Leaders who cannot make these shifts – from Clear to Complicated to Chaotic and then into Complexity and back again; who have not developed the skills to pause and reflect however briefly in this moment, will be the ones whose organizations will struggle to become “exaptive” and will likely not survive this season.

Act from an Abundance Mindset, Not a Scarcity Mindset

While fear and anxiety can produce a scarcity mindset, how have you seen leaders choose to engage an abundance mindset?

I think effective leaders right now are working on contingency planning, stanching the bleeding, tightening everything they can tighten. Preparing for layoffs, and more. And they should. But the exceptional leader is also thinking about how they move into a place of caring and service. I learned of several business owners this week, even as they were making hard decisions, were able to launch a platform in their organizations that allowed for a benevolence fund to be established so that immediate needs could be met for employees whose hours may be cut back or where a spouse has lost work. Similarly, a group of churches in the Denver metro area is doing the same thing. I read of another organization whose business is closed and is able to keep paying its employees, partnering with local restaurants to purchase and deliver food to frontline workers. Keeping local restaurants in business and giving people a way to safely contribute. I am seeing sacrificial leaders, taking enormous pay cuts or reducing their own salaries to near nothing so that they can continue to pay their employees, even when they cannot work. All kinds of businesses are offering their best content online to serve others, many of whom they might otherwise view as competitors. This kind of abundance and generosity is what will help us to care for one another in ways big and small, navigating this season.

Beyond the Short Term, How Can Leaders Choose to Be Exceptional and Drive Future Value?

I believe it comes down to this: they will constituently and congruently be demonstrating generosity. They will seek to add value in every interaction, not for something in return but simply because they genuinely want to serve and care for their neighbors. Not because they will receive anything to do, but because in these times, it is right and just.

My favorite passage from the Hebrew bible on this comes from the prophet Habakuk 2:

I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
and what answer I am to give to this complaint.

In this moment of utter uncertainty, we can “Look to see what the Lord will say.” There is hope always, however small, even in seasons of true despair. Look up and see!

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