There were cows and barn doors flying through the air! Whole trees were spinning in the clouds like toothpicks! Okay, not really. But the storm had been so frightening that each time we told the story we embellished our tornado experience. This is nothing new to folks who live in Ohio. When I was a teenager we had a particular spring with more tornadoes than usual. Nearly every week there was a damaging tornado in our area. One particular afternoon my brother and I had come home from school during a storm that quickly became a full-blown tornado. We had no warning, other than the black, blue-green sky, hail, high winds, and spinning clouds. Quickly we headed downstairs. Having a walk-out basement we had the vantage point of windows from which to watch nature’s furious show. Being the curious sort, rather than obey what we’d learned in school about staying away from windows and tornado safety, I made a bee-line for the action. I just had to see this. And there it was, coming down out of the sky, swirling with debris truly moving round and round inside. It was a twisting cloud of chaos. Electrical lines popping, sparking, flashing. I was awestruck. What power and chaos this storm had! Then I snapped to my senses and thought of heading to a more safe place. But it was too late. The storm had passed, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. It was awesome and frightening at the same time. Thankfully, no damage at our house. And, of course, as soon as our parents got home from work, my brother tattled on me for not following the rules. I am sure I got a lecture for that!
Sometimes my leadership journey is a lot like that tornado experience. From time to time there is chaos brewing, a storm swirling out of control. These are situations outside of my control or influence, and I can see them coming. There are indications such as organizational high winds, cultural dark clouds, and damaging hail. In the swirl of the storm I can see debris getting caught up in the chaos. People, careers, livelihoods. And still I am curious enough to walk up close and look in, to observe, to understand. But, unlike the tornado experience, I have learned when to simply observe and when to step into the chaos and lead through it. After all I have a team to navigate through the storm. Things are not just about me anymore.
So, how do courageous leaders navigate the chaos? I propose that there is more here than simply navigating through to the other side. Rather, I propose that the differentiator between convenient leadership and courageous leadership is leading in the middle of the chaos; despite the chaos. These are lessons I’ve learned, some from great and influential leaders, much more capable than I’ll ever be. Some come from my own mistakes. Others from research I have conducted and the intentional application of excellent leadership models found. And let me confess something here. Leading through chaos is difficult, and exhausting. But it can also be the most professionally rewarding leadership work we will do; particularly if your passion is to influence change, impact your organization, and make a difference.
Let’s be specific about the leadership behaviors required to successfully lead through chaos. These are intentional, observable behaviors, not philosophical theories to discuss while clouds swirl around you. So, let’s dive in.
1. Be aware of climate change
Let’s be honest, a leader who is completely oblivious to the cultural, organizational and business climate, is ineffective to say the least. To be aware you must be engaged. Observe changes in decisions being made by company executives. Stay in touch with your professional network across functions, your peers, and your team. Listen carefully to the tone of organizational messages. Ask questions of your management team. Seek to understand. Know the indications. As an example, when a business unit leader departs suddenly, you can expect that the new leader is going to make some organizational changes, whether out of necessity or just to add their finger print. But you know change is brewing. Your first reaction may be to lay low, off the radar. Rather, be intentional in your engagement and relationships as these will likely be your barometer. Become a climate watcher.
2. Stay calm
We all know that at the first indication of chaos our human response is fight or flight. Self preservation. However, as I study the most effective leaders in history, I observe in them demonstrating self-control. These folk didn’t run screaming “the sky is falling!” while packing up their offices, “just in case.” Leaders such as Nehemiah from ancient history. A little closer in time, Abraham Lincoln. Winston Churchill, from more modern times. In their closest circles they may have shared their personal fears. But on the front line they controlled their fears and intentionally demonstrated behaviors and decisions that led the troops through the chaos to the other side of the storm. People react positively to self-control and a calm attitude, in contrast to the swirl going on around them.
So, how might this principle look? Here is an example: Quality problems causing conflict between business units? Choose not to get involved in the gossip and unproductive finger-pointing. Make it widely known that you choose to lead a collaborative approach. Model this for and hold your team to this standard. Folks will respond, some not necessarily positively; this is fear manifesting as control. Stay the course of calmness and others will rise up and follow suit.
3. Hold on through organizational high winds
Years ago our family used to go camping. My husband always took time and paid great attention to anchoring the tent pins. He checked for sure ground, and once found took great care to pound the anchors in firmly. He would check and double-check the lines for strength. Only then was he confident that the tent could withstand winds and rain and keep us safe and sound.
During organizational high winds convenience leaders usually abandon cultural anchors first. They start cancelling one-on-ones and staff meetings. Management routines are blown over. Communication just stops, or trickles to a select few. Performance reviews seem to be more of a chore than a means to differentiate those that made a difference. Often these convenience leaders don’t show up for the office picnic. And reward and recognition becomes non-existent. This is contrary to everything we know about human nature. During chaotic times folks need as much normalcy as possible. It is the tie that binds. So I challenge you to stay true to cultural anchors even in the midst of organizational high winds. You may not be able to share confidential information, and find that awkward or frustrating. But this is not about you. This is about the people who comprise the organization. Latch onto those anchors. Have birthday cake. Celebrate the sales win. Keep your commitments to your management routines, with more rigor than ever. These anchors will firmly ground you and your team while others are tossed about in the swirling chaos.
4. Cultural dark clouds and damaging hail
There is just no ignoring an ominous sky. I mean, you can try. But everyone around you is looking out the window at the dark, swirling storm clouds gathering. They are texting their kids, “You home? Go to the basement, listen to the weather report!” You can ignore the dark clouds but they are up-staging you. The best thing you can do is acknowledge what everyone can plainly see. “Gosh, looks like a big storm is brewing. Let’s get ready together!” And everyone gets ready differently, so acknowledge that, too. Some folks want to get right up against the windows, in awe of the power. Some will go outside, experiencing the storm first-hand, desiring to feel the wind in their face. Others are headed for the tornado shelters. Know your team. Give them a little individual space before you pull them in as united front, moving through dark clouds together.
This is particularly true when there is damaging hail. No one wants to hear that a team member lost their job. Shoot, people do not even feel comfortable learning that a work place nemesis was a casualty of the storm. No one likes pay cuts, cost cutting that goes deep, or organizational restructuring.
What’s a courageous leader to do? Communicate often as much as you can. Stay the course of normalcy relative to work projects and goals. Where business objectives change as a result of the chaotic storm, communicate clearly with as much certainty as possible. When appropriate, invite executives to your team meetings to give your staff the visibility and exposure to decision makers. Do not be fearful of that exposure, rather trust your leaders and your team.
If your desire is to truly make a difference in the lives of the people with whom you work, to leave a legacy of courageous leadership, the water hits the wheel during a storm. I hope you are encouraged to intentionally leave convenience leadership behind, and choose to lead through the chaos that inevitably comes.