It’s time to become unshakable.
We are facing unknown times on an unprecedented scale. I believe, too, that this is only the first wave of many to come.
The fact is though, in leadership, nothing truly is known anyway. You face each day with the understanding that there may be no rational causality within it. You can’t rely on a staid, predicable rhythm of A →B →C . Many days you will go from A to Z back to A again and wonder what just hit you.
Here’s something I have seen over and over again: the way you handle unpredictability depends on your inner strength.
I noticed this first while researching teachers. In conducting multiple studies, I saw how the teacher’s authentic character was most visible when the lesson went sideways. Dr. Paul Michalec and I published on this phenomenon, calling them “‘Now what?’ Moments.”
We saw that unpredictable circumstances would erupt that no “manual” or “how-to” guide could possibly address. In the midst of a “‘Now What?’ Moment,” the only thing a teacher had to fall back on was her inner compass, the “self who teaches,” as Parker Palmer so beautifully put it.
Some teachers denied their inner strengths and veered toward rigid control. Others toward capitulation. Each of these tactics told us a lot about where that teacher was in developing her inner strengths, and it helped us identify how to coach them. It often came down to the fact that they didn’t trust, or didn’t have access to, their inner guides.
Some teachers, though, faced the crisis with equanimity and calm, going inward and choosing a path forward that was congruent with their innermost values. They did this even if the decision was against the “rules.” These teachers were uncompromising in their commitment to their inner compass.
The same paradigm is true for leaders. A leader’s true mettle shows when she faces the unknown.
As a society, though, and especially within leadership, we don’t see real programs that help you uncover and strengthen the inner values that help you surf the waves of complex circumstances. You’re expected to do it on your own, unguided, groping your way toward enlightenment, all the while being bombarded with professional development that treats leadership like it exists on the plane of A →B →C. “PD” that treats you like a vessel to be poured into. That approaches leadership like it should always be on the side of certainty.
So, on top of being unsupported in your critical inner journey, you begin to wonder if there’s something wrong with you since yourleadership experience doesn’t seem to line up with the manual that everyone else is following.
A colleague of mine shared a chart recently that provides a framework for these many experiences leadership encounters.
During times of crisis and unpredictability, many leaders cling to the left-side of the graph, wanting to establish certainty at all costs, even sacrificing collective agreement on the altar of predictability (in which case the leadership becomes authoritarian, rigid, and ineffective). It takes a leader with well-developed inner strengths to stand flexibly and firmly in the zone of complexity, facing, clear-eyed, the new and unpredictable while moving forward with calm and openness.
The question is, then, how can you go about developing these inner strengths?
I have whole programs built on this that I cannot cover in a single article, but I can leave you with two thoughts to aid you on your path.
- Reflect, humbly and with openness, every day. John Dewey famously stated that “we do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” Schedule (literally put in your calendar, even in the midst of layoffs, an unknown future and an uncertain economy) sacrosanct time each day to reflect on your experiences and decisions as a leader. Notice when difficult emotions arose. Notice the ways you think about people and circumstances. Ask yourself if there are other ways of being you haven’t considered yet. Ask what your actions, thoughts, and decisions tell you about yourself: your fears, your strengths, where you’re stuck. Let the whole constellation of your being open up to you in these times of solitude and quiet. It’s not indulgent; it’s necessary.
- Find a guide. Reflection will take you along the path, but it’s also fraught with the twists and turns of your own ego. In order to truly see yourself clearly and to open up your inner wisdom, you will need to find a guide, a mentor, a “guru,” who loves you enough to be honest. Choose your guide with care. Choose someone who is farther along on this inner path than you are. You cannot learn from someone more blind than you. You will know the right person because your heart will sing when you meet them. Remember, “anything or anyone/that does not bring you alive/ is too small for you.” (David Whyte).
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