When it all goes wrong

We’re fortune-tellers, trying to predict the future; we’re creators, aspiring to define the future. Most of us, much of the time, are mentally there already – setting goals, making plans, devising strategies. Our very fitness for survival is rooted in our ability to make predictions and plans, and honestly we’re pretty good at it. We can only do this, however, if we willfully set aside the cold, hard fact that we don’t really know what tomorrow will hold.

Best laid plans go awry. Life throws unexpected curve-balls at the worst possible time. This is also true for businesses in today’s fast-paced environment where change and disruption are the norm. Entire industries are overturned seemingly overnight. Factories experience industrial accidents. Political and global shifts cause uncertain markets. Legal and regulatory changes cause unanticipated down-stream impacts. Sudden loss of leadership catches even thoughtful executive teams off guard. At the personal, granular level, you get into a car accident on the way to work, your top performer is wooed away by a competitor, you get a phone call from your kid’s school, your cat shreds the suit you were going to wear to that important meeting. I don’t mean to spook you, but so much can go wrong.

I just lived this truth. I’m living it now. Some things I’m learning and relearning about living and leading through crisis, change, and challenge:

We can’t have contingency plans for every potential problem – there will always be things that catch us off guard. Yes, of course we should develop crisis management plans. Yes, please do try to peer around those dark corners into the future. But the best way to prepare for the unexpected happens inside of us. We have to prepare ourselves, and we have to help our people prepare. I don’t mean by developing plans and processes, I mean by developing our capital-S selves. Our ability to navigate disruptive events demands qualities like emotional fortitude, resilience, responsiveness, and influence. When something goes wrong, as it will – can you self-manage your emotions? Can you influence others to guide them effectively through? Thinking and feeling take from the same pot of resources, and if we can’t manage our reactions, we can’t make sound decisions, individually or collectively. We need to trust in our ability to handle what comes, not merely have faith in our ability to foretell the future.

When things go awry, we have to contend with uncertainty. Ye olde script we plod along with day to day suddenly goes out the window and we can feel adrift. Some people cope with uncertainty by more rigidly clinging to what is known, but if we accept the uncertainty and cultivate presence and perspective, we gain a curious advantage. The simultaneous moment-to-moment awareness of what’s going on inside of me, appreciation of what is going on with other people, and clarity into the essential elements of the situation yields responsiveness and agility that allow us to extract what is possible from what seems horrible. When we are present and responsive, we don’t need a script; when we abandon it, we discover we didn’t need it in the first place.

We have a choice, when faced with situations we dislike or didn’t plan for. Suffer and try to move through them as quickly as possible, or let them act on us in a way that learning and growth take place. We can choose to simply endure them and see them as merely the unfortunate, random perturbations of life. Or we can choose to insist on making them gifts, on finding in them something to build on and gain from. Successful people have a talent in turning difficulty into opportunity and hardship into wisdom.

I suppose in part I’m talking about character development. This is as vitally important to successful leadership as any set of particular leadership competencies. It takes courage and character to successfully govern our weakest aspects, and to engage with others in such a way that they can find their best selves in the worst of times.