Are you enduring change or adapting to change?

When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills. ~Chinese proverb

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Are you enduring change? This week as part of my work I interviewed many donors for a nonprofit’s strategic planning process. These donors are typically leaders in their field, a number of them being CEOs. I asked several questions about the impact of COVID, mostly on how it may have altered their relationship with the nonprofit.

I gleaned some additional learning along the way. There was a distinct difference between those who told me about changes as the result of COVID that excited them (adapting to change), and those who were eager to return to the “old way” (enduring change).

One global CEO from the U.S. was sitting in his office in Switzerland and talked with me via Zoom. He expressed great enthusiasm for the future. He said that he will continue to have Zoom meetings because he would be able to cut his travel in half and significantly increase his productivity. He was clearly adapting and making the best of it.

Then there were those who were longing for the days of in-person meetings and face-to-face interaction. They were clearly enduring change through need need for virtual communication and would only suffer through it as long as necessary, and not a day longer.

Interestingly, if you’re thinking there was a correlation with age around this thinking, at least in my task to speak with these key donors/leaders that was not the case. In fact, if anything, it was the “more mature” leaders who were better at adapting to their new reality.

Are you enduring change or adapting?

This caused me to think about some of my other clients over the past six months. Some were in the midst of strategic planning projects when the COVID crisis hit and they just stopped. They focused on enduring COVID and surviving. While others launched new strategic planning efforts in the midst of the COVID uncertainty. They are adapting and moving forward.

Some of those who are enduring change are trying to build walls to protect their “old way” that they hope to return to “when this is all over.” And those who are adapting are enthusiastically building windmills. They are looking for what they can learn from COVID, and are seeking out ways that COVID has helped to make them better.

Questions Leaders Could Be Asking

In the winds of change, are you building walls (i.e., fearful interference) or are you building windmills (i.e., bold grace)? Here are a few questions that leaders could be asking while the wind is still blowing.

  1. What walls are we building during COVID that might be more harmful than helpful?
  2. In what ways is COVID doing us a favor by blowing down some of our old ways?
  3. It’s been six months, have we even built one windmill in that time?
  4. The wind is still blowing, what windmills should we be building, right now?
  5. Are we enduring the winds of change, or are we adapting to the winds of change?

Peter Drucker said, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” As the wind keeps blowing, build some windmills and lead with bold grace.

Leading in Unending Uncertainty

We are in unending uncertainty. We should not try to cope with it, but just be with it and see opportunities arise. ~Margaret Wheatley

I recently listened to an interview with Meg Wheatley and much of what I’ve included here are bits and pieces from that interview. Wheatley said, “We are in unending uncertainty. We should not try to cope with it, but just be with it and see opportunities arise. We don’t have enough stability in the environment to actually adapt. The core issue for us right now is wrestling with how we deal with uncertainty.”

Wheatley described a shift in leadership. She said that “it’s not enough to know how to reduce conflict, give feedback, or have a systems perspective. The challenges in the current environment are different. People are increasingly angry and fearful. Consequently, we act from self-interest and self-protection.”

Be the Presence of Insight and Compassion

Leading in unending uncertainty requires leaders to be the presence of insight and compassion. To do this, leaders need to learn how their mind works and be able to watch their thoughts and not get seduced by them.

Don’t React

Leaders need to be able to notice when they are reacting, and once they can see when they are reacting they will realize they don’t actually need to react. In order to develop presence and not get triggered, we have to know our minds and work directly on what triggers us.

Don’t Filter

Additionally, leaders need to know how they currently filter information and only see or hear what has already been important to them. We need to get rid of the filters on our perceptions so that we can take in more information.

Abide

Leaders with the presence of insight and compassion have chosen not to flee; they abide.

Abiding is being a peaceful presence. It means being patient, but it also means letting go of the need to have things come out exactly as we want them to. Instead of imposing our criteria for success, respect, or how something will benefit us – just be present.

Choose to Be

We could argue that in the midst of unending uncertainty, leaders are being either too pessimistic or too optimistic. Leadership needed for today is different. Instead of focusing on “is the glass half empty or half full,” we need to think, oh look, there’s water there. Who needs it and how do I get it to them? That’s an example of what it means, as a leader, to be.

Reacting isn’t bold, it’s fearful. Filtering isn’t an act of grace, it’s intervening. Leading in unending uncertainty with the presence of insight and compassion requires leading with bold grace.

Leading in a COVID VUCA World

Full-spectrum thinking is the ability to seek CLARITY across gradients of possibility – while resisting the temptations of certainty. ~Bob Johansen, author of Full-Spectrum Thinking

As I listen and read, I have noticed that as leadership gurus pontificate about our current state, I hear VUCA referenced frequently. VUCA is an acronym used in business to describe the environment. Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous. I too have thought of VUCA a number of times over the past several months.

Volatile: The environment demands you react quickly to ongoing changes that are unpredictable and out of your control.

Uncertain: The environment requires you to take action without certainty.

Complex: The environment is dynamic, with many interdependencies.

Ambiguous: The environment is unfamiliar, outside of your expertise.

Even before COVID, many leaders were saying that we live in a VUCA world. We’ve now well-surpassed our previous views of what a VUCA world could look like. We’re kind of living in the perfect storm of VUCA.

How do you lead in a VUCA world?

For each of the VUCA elements there is a contrasting element. Focus your attention on the right side of the list.

Volatility yields to Vision

Uncertainty yields to Understanding

Complexity yields to Clarity

Ambiguity yields to Agility

“Yields to” is an important phrase because yielding requires humility, empathy, and vulnerability. Bob Johansen, author of Full-Spectrum Thinking, says that “Our brains want certainty, but what they need is clarity.”

Through humility, empathy, and vulnerability we can determine the next step to take (clarity) while at the same time being uncertain (not knowing what the outcome of taking that step will be). Because if we wait for certainty (knowing the outcome) we will likely never move. Psychotherapist, Steven Stosny, PhD, said, “Certainty itself is an emotional state, not an intellectual one. To create a feeling of certainty, the brain must filter out far more information than it processes. In other words, the more certain you feel, the more likely you are wrong.”

What’s getting in your way as you maneuver through the VUCA world that’s been intensified by COVID? Are you lacking clarity (an intellectual exercise)? Or, are you fearing uncertainty (an emotional state)?

Creating CLARITY, not certainty, is leading with bold grace in a VUCA world.

RBG is Bold Grace

Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you. ~Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. How can I spend a year exploring leading with bold grace and not pause and highlight the life of Justice Bader Ginsburg? I’m not sure there is anyone who has been a better model of both living and leading with bold grace.

I love it when different things I’m reading or listening to align at the perfect time. This week I’ve been participating in an online summit called Leadership for a Changing World and listened to an interview with Robert E. Quinn, one of my favorite thought leaders.

Create Meaning and Move People

Quinn said, “Leadership is about vision and moral power; it’s about creating meaning and moving people to where they can’t normally be.” He went on to say that “Leaders have to be adaptive. They have to live at a higher than normal reactive state. They live in the same crises and they lift themselves up emotionally, morally, and spiritually above reaction, and they lead.”

That’s exactly how I view RBG. Here are two quotes from RBG to illustrate my point.

“Anger, resentment, envy, and self-pity are wasteful reactions. They greatly drain one’s time. They sap energy better devoted to productive endeavors.” ~RBG

“Sometimes people say unkind or thoughtless things, and when they do, it is best to be a little hard of hearing – to tune out and not snap back in anger or impatience.” ~RBG

My initial RBG quote that has been posted throughout social media – “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” – is the epidemy of bold grace.

Contribution Trumps Achievement

One other point in that same Quinn interview is that “the goal of contribution trumps the goal of achievement.” And, wow, did RBG contribute!

As one headline stated, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg Was Not A Radical. But She Was Still Revolutionary.” “While Ginsburg’s style was steady and methodical – she never considered herself a radical – the sheer volume and impact of her work catalyzed a revolution.”

I continue to be drawn back to Quinn’s description of leadership and I can’t help but insert RBG’s name. “RBG lived at a higher than normal reactive state. She lived in the same crises and she lifted herself up emotionally, morally, and spiritually above reaction, and she led.”

RBG. A true role model of bold grace.

Leadership Resilience, Especially in a Pandemic

Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept it and try to put together something that’s good. ~Elizabeth Edwards

Resilience. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, likely because we are living through a pandemic. I’m consequently spending time looking for leaders who will guide their organizations through this season and come out the other side even stronger. Leaders who will model resilience.

In what I’ve been reading, I now have a bit different view as to what resilience is, and is not. Resilience is about managing expectations and focusing energy on what we can control. It is not necessarily about being “tough,” although Merriam-Webster would differ and considers “tough” synonymous with resilient.

I believe that resilience is proactive, and I typically think of “tough” as being more reactive. Being resilient means you are always preparing, developing a mindset that keeps you resilient. It’s not something you work towards, and then stop working because you’ve accomplished “resilience.” It’s more like the athlete who gets in top physical condition, and then keeps working to maintain that physical condition. That feels very proactive to me. Tough, on the other hand, feels more like the athlete who maybe doesn’t prepare as much and just endures the pain really well.

How do we become more resilient, especially as leaders? I’m going to begin to unpack what I’m learning. Here’s a start.

Keep Your Expectations Low

Keeping expectations low may sound like I’m saying be more pessimistic. I wouldn’t go that far. It means that unrealistic expectations can lead to profound disappoint when things don’t materialize like we had hoped. The problem is that being overly optimistic limits our motivation to take decisive action to actually make our situation better.

We need to communicate somewhat paradoxical thinking by (a) believing and saying that eventually things will work out or get better, AND (b) accept and say that it could be difficult for some time before that happens. Then get to work on making things even a little better in the present.

Focus on What You Can Control

Here are two examples from the NeuroLeadership Institute that illustrate why focusing on what you can control is so important to resilience. A sense of control over one’s workspace showed over a 30% increase in people’s performance. A sense of control over room layout halved the death rate in one study in an elderly person’s home. Focusing on what you can control matters.

As a leader, what are you communicating right now? Are you talking about all of the things that we can’t control because of the pandemic. Are you telling people to just “wait it out”? Or, are you intentionally talking about and giving people work to focus on that gives them a sense of control? What are you modeling? Are you, the leader, focusing your attention on things you can control?

Be a resilient leader through the pandemic. Start by managing expectations without being overly optimistic and focus your organization on what you can control. Resilience is leading with bold grace.