Leading in chaotic times

Imagine this if you can….

  • Your managers have the flexibility and deftness of thought and action required to finesse your organisation through the current challenges affecting the economic and environmental climate.
  • Your organisation is awash with managers who set good examples to their staff.
  • Your workplace is full of employees who enthusiastically put ‘all hands to the pump’ such that staff surveys show increases in loyalty and engagement.
  • Your organisation manages and dizzying pace of change by continuing to inspire all employees to get involved in problem-solving and innovation.

How is all this possible?

Chaos Theory can give us a little insight as to how…

The global economic and financial systems are just that – systems.  Chaos Theory studies systems and patterns that affect systems from a very big picture perspective.   It tells us that all systems have a purpose and parameters within which they work, and work well.  Changes can occur, and so long as they stay within the parameters, the system will equilibrate, learn and carry on, more or less as it was before.  However, when the forces that impact on and within a system go beyond those parameters it will collapse, cascading into chaos and unpredictability which is often perceived as crisis.  Sound familiar?

Once the chaos has been entered there is only one thing for certain.  That is, that nothing will ever be the same again.  Suddenly, what springs to my mind are a lot of our dinosaur politicians and business leaders talking about getting back to ‘business as usual’, but I feel that they are mistaken.  There is no going back, and ‘business as usual’ now looks like something entirely different than it did pre-2008/Lehman/Greek debt crisis/sub-prime mortgages.  Something NEW is emerging, it always does; but we cannot predict what that might be.  Businesses that seek to ride out the storm until they can resume ‘business as usual’ will miss the boat!  Businesses that are able to respond, adapt and keep transforming are the ones that will come though the chaos and emerge into the new system READY AND ABLE.  These are businesses that are able to LEARN.

Thus it is suicidal in times of budget constraints, roller-coaster share values and erratic profits (along with the chronic skills shortage that some surveys still indicate) to cut investment in people.  Yet in times such as these, the first thing a lot of organisations cut is spending in learning and development…..as if L&D spending was discretionary!

In late 2008, just as the global financial house of cards began to tumble, the UK’s top business leaders took out a full-page ad in the UK Sunday Times making a call for organisations to keep investing in people, especially during difficult economic times.  These people understood what was required.

It is not a matter of a quick fix.  Indeed, in the realm of leadership development there is no such thing.  To quote Dr. Lester Levy, Adjunct Professor of Leadership at the University of Auckland’s Business School, people “should throw away the clock and put up the calendar, as the longer the development process is, the more enduring and sustained its impact will be.”  We must dispense with the idea that the old ‘training model’ works for leadership development.  A half-day seminar will just not cut it.  The time is NOW to undertake a process of real development where reflection and longer-term experiential learning are the keys.  Dr. Levy’s 2007 “More Right than Real” leadership survey indicates that “the NZ leader is unlikely to encourage and acknowledge differing points of view, has low self-awareness and is resistant to change.”  Hardly traits which will help an organisation navigate its way into the new economy!

So NOW is the time to invest in your leaders!

I have written before on the difference between transactional and transformational learning processes, and now more than ever is the time to be looking for transformation; and this starts from within.  Much has been written and researched about the link between successful leaders and high levels of EQ.  Little in the current range of management education options really confronts and transforms the core issues related to leadership development: growing self-awareness, growing the ability to moderate and regulate emotional responses, growing the ability to stand in others’ shoes, growing the ability to motivate, inspire and coach.  What is required is something fresh, something which gets to the guts of what is to be developed.  It’s not a warm and fuzzy sort of training event that is needed, but a rigorous programme of self-examination which stretches people beyond their comfort zones and guides them to develop new abilities for a new era.  (…and yes, I have some idea what that might look like, if I’m allowed a little self-promotion)

If you are looking to develop your leaders, it is not always wisest to go for the tired old options of years gone by.  Remember: old minds think, ‘If it didn’t work last year, let’s do more of it this year,’ while new minds think, ‘If it didn’t work last year, let’s try something different’.  If you are looking to develop your leaders, go for the innovative, not the remedial.  And if you are looking to develop your leaders, do it NOW.  In times when organisations need new solutions to old problems or really effective solutions to new problems, the answer is to invest in your talent; invest in your leaders…..and do it NOW.


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