Leading in the Eye of the Hurricane (Part 5): Charting the Next Right Step

You’ve found yourself leading in a time of crisis: which is to say, you are guiding others in a time of reality-shifting change. If you’ve been reading the other posts in this series, you’ve joined me in exploring several tasks that are especially helpful for leading in times like this:

  1. Catching one’s breath
  2. Confronting what’s happening and
  3. Connecting to what’s enduring and essential

All of these tasks involve pulling yourself out of the fray and entering the still, quiet “eye of the hurricane,” where you can find necessary grounding and perspective.

“Charting the next right step” is the final task and the natural outgrowth of the first three. It marks the transition out of reflection and into action. Yet even for the action-oriented, moving forward in a crisis can be daunting.

First, crisis often invokes a sense of powerlessness. The forces of disruptive change are frequently far beyond your control. It’s sobering (and sane) to recognize the limits of your influence, especially when your team is looking to you to handle it all.

My clients who are taking effective action in critical times tend to focus in on what they can control and influence, and take action in that zone. They stay attuned to the uncontrollable forces at play, but invest their efforts where they can actually accomplish something.

The second obstacle to moving forward is the desire to establish the “perfect” plan before taking action. The stakes are high and you want to get this right. But in the chaos of crisis, there is no perfect plan. If you wait for it, you’ll never act. So you have to take what you do know, take a logical next step, and use that step to inform the next one. When things are changing fast, taking action is sometimes the only way to discern what the ‘right’ action is.

Otto Scharmer, a Senior lecturer at MIT, calls this “prototyping.” It involves sketching out an initial strategy and testing it out through implementation. Each action cycle produces new learning, which in turn informs the next cycle of implementation. This iterative approach can often build momentum more effectively than searching for the illusive perfect plan.

You can also prototype yourself! In the swirl of changes, you may be stretched to develop a whole new skill set or aspect of yourself. (I can help you with that.) Don’t attempt to take on all the changes in one fell swoop. Pick one or two areas to start and make small new moves. Then reflect on the results, recalibrate, and reengage.

The third obstacle to useful engagement is frenzied activity.  Frenzy functions in a strange way in the brain. The stress hormones pumping through your body tell your brain that you’re in danger and the only way out is to step harder on the gas. But your logical mind knows better: you will never manage all the debris that a crisis throws into the air. And if you try, you’ll probably end up just depleting yourself and your team – with little to show for it. If you find yourself in frenetic activity, it might be time to return to the ‘eye’ and attend to Tasks 1 – 3. There, you can settle yourself and figure out what matters most.

In normal times, leaders tend to map out a long term strategy and execute it according to plan. But in crisis – when the world as you know it is falling away and something new is emerging – it’s often impossible to see far enough ahead to map more than a few next steps. So crisis requires a different mode of taking action. It calls on you to discern new patterns as they are emerging, to formulate a prototype strategy, and test that prototype by putting it into motion. Then learn as you go, using the actions you’ve take to inform the actions to follow.