Leading in Disruption

Are different skills required to lead in disruptive times versus at all other times?

Are different skills required to lead in disruptive times versus at all other times?  And what makes disruption so…. well, disruptive?  Do things seem at least as uncertain – if not more so – than when COVID first hit? Are you and your team feeling fatigued and uncertain about how to deal with that continuing uncertainty?

If you can answer “yes” to some or all of the questions above, you mirror many of the conversations I’ve had over the last month with those in leadership roles.  In response, the articles and sources this month primarily deal with the uncertainty caused by disruption – and what, as leaders, you might do to help yourself and others access your best thinking during these uncertain times.

Scan these titles quickly, read my short summaries if the titles grab you, and/or delve more fully in places as your time allows.  As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments about your lived experiences in these areas of leadership!


A short introduction to making multiple interpretations

By Andrew Stevens.

For the second newsletter in a row, Andrew Stevens – my co-collaborator on a variety of leadership programs and co-founder and director of Uncharted Leadership Institute, Australia – has graciously provided this month’s ‘mini-development’ piece.   His five-minute video introduces the skill needed for making multiple interpretations and why that is so critical to individuals and organizations grappling with complex challenges. This thinking capacity is one of the cornerstones for the work he and I do with leaders and organizations. Enjoy!

Useful Resources

Leadership in Disruptive Times” 

(General Mark Welsh III, at the 2019 Air Warfare Symposium, 2/28/19)

Comment: This 44-minute video of General Welsh is a must-watch.  General Welsh is former Chief of Staff of the Air Force and is the current Dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He offers 5 practical and inspiring recommendations for leading in disruption.  If you can only read/watch one piece of this newsletter, make it this one.

Key ideas (almost exclusively in his words):
We are always in disruptive times – in literally every decade over the last hundred years. Great leadership principles are needed now as in those times – such lasting principles are never complicated but are also never easy.  Five recommendations for leading in disruptive times:

  1. Make common sense the first standard you apply – and you have to be the common-sense monitor.
  2. Create stability – when things are in turmoil and constant change, create something that your people can count on that is not going to change. It can be pride in the team, it might be faith in you and your leadership.  Create stability of purpose, stability of hope.
  3.  Believe in your people – and that means all of your people. Things being in disruption means we don’t know or have an answer for them.  Your folks bring new ideas, new skills – they can create solutions we can’t even imagine. (General Welsh provides an example of this that you won’t want to miss, in a list of what your followers most need from you.)
  4. Preserve the pride – it is fundamental to us as human beings.  Pride is one of the strongest of connective tissues – connecting people to people, people to organizations, people to ideas. It will create the stability you need and will get you through disruptive times.
  5. Care…enough that it hurts sometimes. The more uncertain it gets around your people, the more they need to know you care. You’ve got to care about their tools, their mission, their families – everything about them.

“SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others”

(David Rock, Neuroleadership Journal, Issue 1, 2008).

Comment: This 2008, research-based article bears reviewing as a way of better understanding our reactions to the uncertainties in our world.  The author describes the common factors that activate our threat-or-reward responses and interfere with our best thinking.  Merely knowing about these factors can help reduce the threat responses that otherwise limit our effectiveness.
Key ideas (almost exclusively in his words):
The approach-avoid response is a survival mechanism designed to help people stay alive by quickly and easily remembering what is good and bad in the environment. This approach-avoid response is a reflexive activity; when activated, it decreases the overall executive functioning in the pre-frontal cortex (e.g. our best thinking). This threat response is often just below the surface and easily triggered.  The five most powerful activators seem to be:

  1. STATUS – about relative importance, ‘pecking order’ and seniority. One study showed that reduction in status resulting from being left out of an activity lit up the same regions of the brain as physical pain.
  2. CERTAINTY – the brain is a pattern-recognition machine that is constantly trying to predict the near future; even a small amount of uncertainty generates an ‘error’ response in the orbital frontal cortex. Larger uncertainties (like COVID!) can be highly debilitating.
  3. AUTONOMY – the perception of exerting control over one’s environment; a sensation of having choices. Without that sense of control, stress can be highly destructive.
  4. RELATEDNESS – involves deciding whether others are ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a social group. People naturally like to form ‘tribes’ where they experience a sense of belonging; meeting someone unknown tends to generate an automatic threat response.
  5. FAIRNESS – exchanges that are perceived as fair are intrinsically rewarding, independent of other factors. A sense of unfairness can result from a lack of clear ground rules, expectations, or objectives; unfair exchanges generate a strong threat response.

Knowing about the domains of SCARF helps one to label and reappraise experiences that might otherwise reduce performance. 

“Why managing uncertainty is a key leadership skill”

(Michele Wucker, June 10, 2020, in strategy+business)

Comment: The future is not predictable, and if our brain-wiring predisposes us to be activated by uncertainty – as David Rock suggests – then we better get good at coping with uncertainty.  This article suggests some practices that will help develop that skill.

Key ideas (mostly in the author’s words):

  1. The ability to navigate uncertainty is a crucial business skill: knowing what you can and can’t control, aligning your company and employees with a shared purpose, holding to a clear vision of where you want the company to be, and trusting your team to help get there.
  2. A 2019 study of dozens of global leaders identified the top leadership skill needed today as comfort with risk and with ambiguity. The best CEOs are able to live with ambiguity by staying centered around a strong sense of shared purpose.
  3. The business leaders who are best at managing in uncertain worlds also rely on systems thinking to sort out complex problems.  
  4. The pandemic has created an enormous uncertainty shock, described as similar in magnitude to the rise in uncertainty during the Great Depression of 1929–1933.
  5. 60 percent of the expected contraction in the US economy will be the direct consequence of uncertainty.
  6. Leaders don’t have to like dealing with uncertainty in order to master it – the biggest challenge is to see their role as orchestrating, not commanding. 

“How people learn to become resilient”

(Maria Konnikova, February 11, 2016, in the New Yorker).

Comment: There is a lot of research about resilience – how and when it’s developed, etc. – but it seems clear that having high levels of resilience can help one better cope with adversity/uncertainty.  Can resilience be developed?  Yes!
Key ideas (mostly in the author’s words):
Quoting the work of several developmental psychologists, the author explores why – given we all possess the same fundamental stress-response system – some of us seem to use the system so much more effectively than others. 

  1. Perception – do you conceptualize an event as traumatic (or potentially traumatic event) or as an opportunity to learn and grow?  Events that can be seen as having meaning may not be experienced as a trauma.
  2. Teaching people to think of stimuli in different ways—to reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative—changes how they experience and react to the stimulus.
  3. Seligman’s research about internal and external locus of control – changing your locus from external to internal leads to positive changes in both psychological well-being and objective work performance.
  4. We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds. Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it and grow. Frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible.
  5. This research shows that resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught. 

Book Review

“Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: how to thrive in complexity”

(Jennifer Garvey Berger, 2019).

Comment: This third book by Jennifer Garvey Berger, head of Cultivating Leadership, grew out of her work around the globe over several decades in helping leaders navigate complexity – and from feedback she got that her first two books on complexity were too complex to understand!  In this easy-to-read, 137-page book, she identifies (and provides keys for escaping) the “mindtraps” that keep us from being our best in complexity.
Key ideas in the book (and mostly in Jennifer’s words, for brevity):
We humans are brilliantly designed – for an older, less connected and more predictable version of the world. Our human instincts, shaped for (and craving) a simple world, fundamentally mislead us in a complex, unpredictable world – but that doesn’t seem to make us less likely to use them.  These cognitive and emotional shortcuts – “mindtraps” – are part cognitive bias, part neurological quirk, and part adaptive response to a simple world that doesn’t exist anymore.
We are:

  • Trapped by simple stories – we make up stories based on the briefest of observations and then act as if they are true.  And we do this without thinking.
  • Trapped by rightness – we think we see the world as it is, when in reality we see it as we are.  When we believe we are right we actually ignore data that might show we are wrong.
  • Trapped by agreement – longing for alignment robs us of good ideas.  When we can’t reach that alignment, we tend to polarize.  In complexity, we need diversity of experience to learn how to harness conflict rather than push it away.
  • Trapped by control – humans are made happy by being in control. Complexity, however, requires the counterintuitive move of letting go of control to focus on creating the conditions for good things to happen.
  • Trapped by ego/identity – though we rarely admit it, we spend a great deal of energy protecting our seemingly fragile egos, which prevents us from growing better able to handle the world that is coming next.

(How does one better identify and then escape these traps?  Ah, you’ll have to read the book for that!)

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.]


Being on time when you usually aren’t.  Practicing your speech for the 10th time. Discipline’s value transcends the battlefield. Discipline drives you to do the work you don’t enjoy but is required to enhance your leadership effectiveness.  Discipline conquers fear. Discipline keeps you going when your curiosity, motivation, and excitement evaporate.  Be reflective and proactive this week about when (and for what) your discipline is needed.

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