Leading in a Changing World

COVID - A real-life, immersive lesson about “leading in complexity” and “navigating disruption”

The world has changed since the first version of this newsletter was sent in early March, 2020.   Social distancing, sheltering-at- and working-from-home, empty shelves in grocery stores, cancelled weddings, missed births, uncertainty about what’s next – if you had wanted to learn about “leading in complexity” and “navigating disruption,” we are all now enrolled in the real-life, immersive version of that course!

As this newsletter is about your leadership development, the articles and suggestions this month focus on the unique challenges of leading in a time of disruption – and that includes taking care of yourself. You can scan it quickly but there are some really good articles I would encourage you to read in their entirety.  There is information as well about a free online session – Leading in Crisis – my colleagues and I are offering on April 15 2020 for leading in complex times.

Useful Resources

​“That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.”

(Scott Berinato, Harvard Business Review, March 23, 2020).  

Comment: This article, graciously shared for free by HBR, is an interview by the author with David Kessler, the world’s foremost expert on grief and a co-author, with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, on “On Grief and Grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss.” I provide some summary comments below, but I hope you will read the entire article.

  • People are feeling a number of different griefs in response to this COVID-19 pandemic, including for the loss of normalcy, the fear of economic toll, and the loss of connection.
  • Anticipatory grief is even harder when our primitive minds know something bad is happening but we can’t see it.
  • The five stages of grief first introduced by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book “On Death and Dying” are just as present in the current circumstances: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness or depression, and acceptance.  Acceptance is where the power lies.
  • The real leverage lies in coming into the present, letting go of what you can’t control, and stocking up on compassion.  When we allow the feelings to happen, the empower us rather than make us victims.

“Leadership in a Crisis.” 

This is a special video interview with Ron Heifetz of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University conducted for the Australia and New Zealand offices of McKinsey & Company, one of the world’s largest and biggest management consulting firms. 

Heifetz and colleague Marty Linsky are co-authors of “Leadership on the Line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading,” which details how complex adaptive challenges require different leadership skills and thinking than what most of us have been taught throughout our careers. Heifetz uses the key concepts from that book to recommend how those in leadership roles might best address the adaptive challenges in these difficult times. With this video being just over an hour long, you might be tempted to just settle for my summary notes below. 

However, it has some good suggestions for leadership strategies for these times …..for your teams and for you. Heifetz’ six critical actions for leading in a crisis:

  • Understand that there are phases in a crisis – and appropriate strategies for each.
  • Disequilibrium, in the sense that a crisis causes stress to the point of distress.  The acute phase of the crisis creates strains and losses that can lead to a number of dysfunctions. The leader’s role is to regulate this disequilibrium by both acknowledging the stark realities we are facing and, at the same time, engaging people in the adaptive work needed to address those realities.
  • Work avoidances are the natural ways humans respond to changes that represent loss for us – either by diversion of responsibility (e.g. it’s not my problem) or by diversion of attention (denial).
  • The holding environment is the glue that is needed to enable people to stay in the tough conversations needed to address the adaptive issues and to avoid the divisive forces that would pull us apart.
  • Authority relationships are especially needed in times of crisis – and most of us have had occasions throughout our lives that have caused distrust with those relationships. In these times especially it is critical to rehabilitate our ability to engage in authority relationships.  To do this…..
  • Leaders must adopt a mindset of repair and renewal of trust as an ongoing effort.  Paradoxically, that trustworthiness requires of leaders two things: to be transparent about the mistakes that have been made and to be decisive in decisions while setting expectations that course corrections will be necessary going forward.  
    (Leadership in a Crisis)

Book Review

​“Not Knowing: The art of turning uncertainty into opportunity,”

(Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, 2014.)

Comment: At the heart of ‘Not Knowing’ is the idea that in the dynamic complexity and interconnection of the world we live in no easy answers are possible. Despite our expectations that our leaders “know” the answers, there are no well-worn paths or guides to show the way, and our confidence and competence are tested every day. 

At the edge with the unknown we confront our own uncertainties, fears and anxieties. For many of us, facing the unknown is painful. We are neurologically hard-wired to know and are comfortable in the familiar. When we reach the edge with the unknown, we may feel groundless, lost, confused, perhaps even angry that we cannot work it out or go back to ‘the way it was’. Many of our responses are simply extensions of old ways of tackling issues. We stick with what we know, with incremental variations. Our business schools teach students case studies based on precedents; our consultancies see their clients’ problems as ‘unique’, while offering the same models. In a world of pandemics, financial crises, continuous organizational restructures, societal revolutions, our experts and leaders have been found wanting.

In order to thrive in worrying times, ‘Not Knowing’ proposes we that we head, counter intuitively, towards the unknown rather than away from it. It is only at the edge of our competence, by embracing Not Knowing, that we can start discovering and creating new ways of tackling our most vexing challenges. 

  1. Say ‘I don’t know’ more often.
  2. Don’t search for the answers, live the questions.
  3. Be a beginner at something.
  4. Let go of control, engage with ‘what is’.
  5. Learn by watching, listening and waiting.
  6. Tap into all your senses. Our body is a gateway to new learning. 
  7. Entertain doubt, cultivate humility.
  8. Challenge blind reliance on authority and expertise.
  9. Cultivate a mindset of exploration and experimentation. 
  10. Embrace mistakes and failures.

“Not Knowing” won the Chartered Management Institute ‘Book of the Year’ award 2015 in the U.K.  Co-author Diana Renner is a founding partner of Uncharted Leadership (Australia)

Executive Presence Tip of the Month

[In addition to subject matter expertise, organizational acumen, and higher-level thinking skills, effective executive leadership requires the sometimes-hard-to-define practices and skills that are embodied in ‘executive presence.’   Executive presence is an elusive concept, but we know it when we see it….and one can grow her executive presence.]

“Show you care.” 

​Some people adopt a professional and crisp persona, hiding their genuine warmth in an effort to appear more executive-like. Such an approach actually undermines rather than enhances executive presence. People who have executive presence are approachable and engaging, whether they’re dealing with a receptionist or a CEO. They’re natural, exude warmth, and show a genuine interest in those around them.  This is particularly needed in times like this pandemic, when uncertainty and worry are so high.  Set a goal to purposefully and consciously ‘show you care’ for all manner of people over the next few weeks.

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