By Lance Kissler, adapted from my co-presentation with Patty Shea of Avista Utilities at the Leadership Spokane Connections breakfast, “Adaptive Leadership: Communicating in Uncertain Waters.”
It can be difficult to come to agreement, particularly in a world with complex issues, diverse populations, a plethora of perspectives, and countless variables. However there is probably one thing that we can all agree upon: that change is constant — and that managing change may be more difficult than building consensus among groups, communities and nations.
And yet, how do we lead others during times of uncertainty? When those of us who are in positions of leadership are often struggling to navigate ambiguity, how can we be expected to provide vision, inspire commitment, and drive action in others?
No matter how complex the issue is, the answer is often simple. We stick to what we know and learn from what is unknown.
Create a vision and plan
In order to thrive as an organization, we need a clear direction to follow. Understanding the notion that change drives innovation, we can begin to embrace it and harness all that it has to offers: new processes, ways of thinking, solutions, methods, approaches, ideas, products, etc. When we define where we want to be, and place strict parameters on how to get there, we set ourselves up for failure. While having a vision is critical for growth, progress, and sustainability, creating a plan that embodies flexibility will allow us to adjust to unplanned circumstances.
Be authentic and genuine
All of us have a past — and while it’s important not to live in it, we must learn from and accept it. This means we need to be comfortable not only in our own shoes, but in wearing and walking in the shoes of others. By building our sense of perspectives, we gain a better understanding of ourselves and how we approach each situation from our own lens. The power lies in our ability to be authentic and genuine with our intentions, and deliberate in our actions.
Build consensus and inspire others
Those in leadership need to be okay with taking leaps of faith, and empowering others to be bold and do so as well. That means being there to catch them when they fall, lift them back up, and help them take that next important step when they may be hesitant to walk again. So what does this ultimately mean? By owning up to our own mistakes, leaders demonstrate that everyone is vulnerable, and that there is a support network from the top down that will come together to move us all forward. This acceptance of imperfection helps build compassion and empathy — two critical components of consensus and inspiration.
Be nimble when pushing forward
There are processes and policies that help provide flexibility — whether it is alternative work schedules, new technology, or systems for cultivating feedback and implementing improvements. But it is when we find commonality among our individuality that we truly understand diversity — and diversity is key to being nimble. Without diversity, we wouldn’t have to make adjustments to how we work, interact, or engage with others. This process inherently builds our capacity to be nimble and enables us to push forward in complex environments.
Communicate clearly and often
Everything we do can be measured in by one quantifiable metric: time. What also takes time is our ability to adapt. It’s imperative for leadership to communicate on a regular basis, and do so in a timely and concise manner, in order to keep everyone on board and up to speed. But what should we or should we not communicate, and who do we communicate what with, let alone when? Those are difficult questions to provide a generalized answer to, as each organization has its own unique culture and variety of audiences. The best approach is to answer the question: If I were in this particular position, what would I need to know and when would I need to know it by in order to be successful?
Maintain composure during crisis
While crises cannot always be adverted, how you handle them can be planned for in advance. Some mistakes are those we create, while some are uncovered, and yet others are forced upon us. The first step is to stop, breathe, and then begin to tackle the problem — and never take it personally. Your initial response is your most crucial, and you’ll naturally want to be on the defensive, employ less tact, and quite possibly provide misinformation due to lack of details. How you handle yourself in front of your colleagues and the public will set the tone for everything that follows, including understanding, sympathy and support from your constituents. It’s okay to apologize — but it’s not OK to speculate or place blame.