This is the second article in a 3-part series discussing what leaders need to make it through crisis and adversity.
You can find part 1 here
NUMBER 2: FLEXIBILITY
To make it through crisis, you must be flexible. You must be willing to adapt. All your previously well laid out plans are probably going to have to change. A word I’ve been hearing a lot during this COVID-19 crisis is pivot. You were going in one direction, now you suddenly have to make abrupt changes.
Flexibility can be particularly difficult for me being a C-type personality. C-types are conscientious, careful, correct, cautious. We pay attention to details. We want all the facts before we make decisions. I like to plan. I think strategically. I love things to be organized. I’m a perfectionist. To say that disorder bothers me is to put it mildly.
When my daughter was eight years old, her teacher gave the class an assignment. Describe a member of your family by comparing them to an everyday household object. My daughter compared me to a ruler because, “my mum wants everything to be exactly in line.” Ouch!
In high school my daughter and her friends half-jokingly used to say that before I would give her permission to go out I needed five business days’ notice with full details of where they were going, what they were going to be doing, who was going to be there (first name, last name, age, gender, parents’ names, parents’ contact details), what time they were going, what time they were going to be back, what everyone was going to be wearing, eating, drinking … They exaggerated, but you get the picture. I need order. Flexibility is not naturally one of my core strengths.
Paradoxically, I love variety. I easily become bored with routine in my daily life and work. My husband will often come home from work to find I’ve changed all the furniture around simply because I was tired of everything looking the same. One of the reasons why I enjoy consulting, speaking and training is because of the constant diversity of clients, places and travel. I appreciate variety, I just need to be able to plan for it!
And that’s the key to being able to pivot in the face of unexpected challenges. You need to know yourself. You need to know who you are, what you want and what you stand for. A ballerina spins around and around without becoming dizzy because she focusses on one spot. Her eyes return to that spot every time she turns. Fixing her eyes on that spot gives her stability even while the rest of the world spins around her.
For a leader, that “spot” is your clarity about who you are, what you want and what you stand for. You must be clear about your purpose, vision, values. Your why. Why you do what you do tends to remain the same. How you do it adapts according to your current reality.
In the same way you set your destination and programme your GPS before going on a car journey, as a leader you set the course for your organization. When you miss a turn or meet unexpected roadblocks along the way, your GPS immediately recalculates an alternative route to your desired destination. As a leader, when you’re clear about your chosen outcomes, you can pivot in the moment and recalculate. You can recalculate a different route to the same destination.
Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning. In an emergency, the first thing to do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window. But if you haven’t been planning you can’t start to work, intelligently at least.”
Winston Churchill said, “In battles … the other fellow interferes all the time and keeps upsetting things, and the best generals are those who arrive at the results of planning without being tied to plans.”
The value of a plan often isn’t the plan itself. The value of a plan is that you have taken the time to become clear about who you are and what you want to accomplish. You have explored and clarified your options. If you have conducted a thorough strategic plan for your organisation – or a life and leadership development plan for your personal growth as a leader – you’re aware of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This knowledge is vital in allowing you to pivot as unexpected events unfold.
Knowing who I am, what I want and what I stand for contributed to keeping me strong and focussed as my family grappled with my husband’s illness, hospitalisation and recuperation. Knowing my personality type meant that I was aware of my limitations, as well as potential stressors and triggers in that situation. I reached out for help. I accepted help. I made concessions to avoid becoming overstretched and overwhelmed in the trying circumstances.
My values guided my decision making. I didn’t have to make key choices concerning my priorities in the moment. I had already clarified my values and I knew what was most important to me – my relationship with God and my relationships with others. Often when leaders are unclear about their priorities, they are driven by the urgent, rather than by what is most important.
For example, when finances are tight, you can be tempted to sacrifice integrity and commitment to your people. Happily, during this current crisis, we’ve witnessed key leaders pledging to take enormous cuts to their pay checks to ensure employees are paid and layoffs are minimized. These leaders are clear about their values. Their people are more important than profit, and their people are the ones who are going to help turn their organizations around to become profitable again.
In part 3 of this series, we look at the final attribute you need as a leader to come through crisis stronger than when you went in.