Leading In Chaotic Times

“May you live in interesting times.” A curse, right? According to wikipedia, it may derive from a Chinese saying. That saying is itself interesting:

~ “It’s better to be a dog in a peaceful time than a man in a chaotic period.”

Chaotic times, eh? Surely we are living in chaotic times. A period of change, stress, ambiguity, even confusion, leaving many bewildered and lost.

What sort of leader do we need in a time such as this?

Lately, our federal leaders have been putting the emphasis on the need to communicate more clearly. While I would never disagree with that, there is another capability we sorely need.

Here’s a true story. A “rising star” manager was at the front of the room giving a high-stakes presentation to a senior level audience when a slide came up with a typo on it. The word was supposed to be “new” but it appeared as “now.” This young hi-po was so adept that he instantly incorporated the typo into his talk, delighting everyone in the room. He said, “Not only is X a new idea, it’s a NOW idea that we should embrace.” I still smile when I think of how nimble he was. He didn’t even break a sweat.

In that moment of truth, he demonstrated an intangible aspect of leadership. It’s more than being able to communicate and make a good presentation. It’s more than being “good on one’s feet.” It’s an in-the-moment improvisational capability that consultant Julie Sheldon Huffaker (of the Hungry Toolkit blog) says is seeing “a palette of possibilities in front of them” and making “instant connections, using what they have.”

My friend and colleague Robin Cook has made improvisation part of his OD consulting practice for many years. In his study of innovative organizations, he found nine cultural characteristics that cut across a diverse array of highly innovative companies. Included in the nine qualities are Open and Playful. Let’s apply this to leaders and our times.

Open: Many leaders have an agenda and a plan and they stick to it, no matter what. While having a plan is a good thing, sticking rigidly to a plan, when all around you is in flux, is a closed posture that can lead to irrelevance or worse. Scottish filmmaker Guy Ritchie puts it well: “I like to think that we’ve got a plan, so let’s stick to it. That said, once we’ve stuck to it, we’re allowed as much improvisation as anyone cares to indulge themselves in.” A leader in chaotic times has to be open to what’s happening around him or her. Open to ideas. Open to the unexpected. Open to diverse people, even opponents.

Playful: In his classic work Homo Ludens (Man the Player) Johan Huizinga coined this phrase: “Let my playing be my learning, and my learning be my playing.” Every culture, and every organization, arises from the drive to play that is hard-wired into us humans. The distinction between learning time and play time, and later in life between working time and play time, is a false one. Play leads to learning. And play at work leads to creative ideas that in turn may become the next big thing.

And let me add two more that, together with Robin’s, create a model for Leading In Chaotic Times:

Engaging: Due to the work of the Gallup organization and others, many are now realizing that authentic engagement with others is the key to success. When we truly engage our employees and our customers, we listen to them, we learn from them, and we co-create the future with them. These strong bonds, built on shared vision, trust, and mutual commitment, become a foundation for productivity, profitability, and growth.

Networked: A watchword for job hunters and sales people is networking, the never-ending process of connecting with others for mutual benefit. How about leaders? Shouldn’t leaders become networkers too? Keith Ferrazzi, the world’s foremost expert on networking, says success is all about people and the relationships you have with them. And it helps, he adds, if you are nice.

How OPEN are you? If you hope to lead during interesting times like these, you had better be.

For more ideas on leadership, innovation, improvisation, and managing chaos, contact Terry and invite his to your organization.


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