Leadership in Tumultuous Times

Image by Rudy and Peter from Pixabay

“A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart” ~ A. Lincoln

A leader is the embodiment of purpose and direction for a team. As leaders rise through the company, their sphere of influence ripples outward, encircling larger and larger aspects of the company. At the highest level, the leader also embodies the destiny of the company.

A true leader emerges in times of volatility rather than stability. As a species, our nervous system is wired to run, fight or freeze during a crisis rather than to pause and reflect. In times of turbulence — whether caused by a pandemic or market instability — the leader helps us overcome our nervous system and tap into what modern research tells us are the fundamental inclinations of our brain: to belong, contribute, grow and learn.

What is a leader’s responsibility in times of crisis? How do you give direction when everything is in flux?

Create empathetic communities

Empathy is the only way to feel truly safe in uncertain times. The kindness of other people creates a feeling of well-being that lets us relax deeply. A leader in turbulent times is a creator of communities. Belonging to a community that takes creative action to help others restores one’s sense of agency. Here, John Stepper’s Working Out Loud approach holds great promise. It allows us to rekindle curiosity, which is essential for recovery. In a structured twelve-week approach, groups of four to five people, ideally strangers, pursue a goal they are interested in that would benefit from having a community around it.

Move from recovery to discovery

It takes less energy to cope with a crisis, to recover from it, than it does to create, to discover new opportunities. Although it is a natural human impulse to want safety and not venture out, we have progressed as a species precisely because we have been adventurous. The leader steers the employees from recovery to discovery, treating everyone as adults capable of making their own decisions; he is at the center of a circle, not at the top of a pyramid.

Being transparent about the challenges ahead and yet optimistic about the opportunities makes great demands on the inner reserves of the leader. Inner leadership is called for, the ability to access a quiet and stable inner world amid the prevailing change in the outer world. Practicing mindfulness restores balance and clarity; it could be through daily meditation, or finding time to ponder before the day begins, or following Julia Cameron’s practice of Morning Pages — the simple ritual of writing three pages longhand in a stream of consciousness mode.

Think in first principles

Leaders pare down a situation to the bare essentials and reason from first principles rather than through analogy. Most of us reason by analogy because like coping it is easier to do. First principles thinking requires you to dig deeper and deeper until you are left with only the foundational truths of a situation. It requires relentless curiosity, a trait common to all leader to be able to reason from first principles. They are also realists grounded in optimism, who see change as a natural rhythm of life. High-integrity leaders who refuse to give up once they’ve made up their mind, yet welcome being wrong and confronted by their constituents have the ideal mix: they think in first principle, are decisive, relentless and open at the same time.

Find new configurations

Times of intense change are also times of creative destruction. Old structures and values fall away, creating space for new ones to emerge. Shaping new values is possible only through collective will and effort, when everyone in the company learns to lean into the change rather than lean away from it.

At the heart of facing turbulent times is the leader’s ability to make his constituents think deeper than ever before about their circumstances; to rethink fundamentals they have taken for granted and which they may hesitate to question. Leaders recognize when it’s time to allow for the destruction of old values and instead focus on finding the new configuration that creates original value. The breakdown of old structures is also the breakdown of old limitations, and a chance for something radically new to emerge, if you can keep your head above you as the old structures collapse. It falls on the leader to do that for himself and his constituents.

See ahead, bring others along

Recognizing this change, and having the ability to see ahead by seeing deeply, and then bringing everyone along to see and get behind their vision is the essence of a leader at any moment in time. It just so happens that in these turbulent times, the leader like everyone else has also been stripped down to his essence, and his innermost reality is now his outmost behavior. It is a heavy burden to bear, but because of him we find ourselves daring to hope, feeling cautiously optimistic, and eventually emerging, when we least expect it, into a new and better reality.

Senior Vice President and Head of SAP Academy for Engineering. Inclusion Evangelist, Thought Leader, Speaker, Columnist and Author.