Leaders who hold steady when others are losing their heads: Staying true to yourself during times of change

One of the most difficult challenges to deal with is ambiguity; the unknown of what might happen next.

anxious businessman

I see it constantly in the organizations and individuals that I support every day. Leaders can get thrown off relatively easily when the potential for significant change is introduced. Typical examples include:

  • an intention to reorganize is announced
  • a new leader will head up your group
  • your biggest client decides not to use your org’s services anymore
  • there is talk of selling off your division
  • you are concerned you might get fired…

The list goes on and on.

Our tendencies to run “what if” scenarios go wild.  Just witness the constant conjecture circling around what our new President Elect’s impact will be. When given the opportunity to look deeper into the reasons for the anxiety, it’s interesting that it’s not the fear of what the new rules or consequences will be, that trips us up, it’s actually not believing or remembering that we will be able to cope with the consequences of the change adequately.

Don’t get me wrong; some changes can be huge, and even in some cases life-altering in disturbing ways. I am not trying to minimize the struggle.  But history is filled with countless stories of great leaders having faced huge life threatening situations for themselves and their followers, with clarity and courage. One that springs to mind is Nelson Mandela who led South Africa through its transition from Apartheid toward a racially integrated society.

What are the key components for getting back on track?

  1. First acknowledge you are thrown off. Evidence of this may be obsessive thoughts or conversations about what might happen, coping by using defensive behaviors like micromanaging, perfectionism, and even disengaging from others can show up. We cope by trying to avoid the concern by compensating with activities that dull the emotions.
  2. Give yourself a moment of compassion. Change can be scary. You may have had a history that wasn’t great around the consequences of change, that creates fear in your mind now. It’s important to accept that your anxiety is understandable given your experience.
  3. Break the cycle. Remind yourself that you have weathered tough times before, and most importantly reconnect with your sense of self and what has driven you forward in the past during times of adversity.
  4. Find your inner compass. Remember or revisit your values. What you believe in and who you really are. Consider how you want to feel and lead during this ambiguous time, and behave in ways that emulate that.

What do others need from you?

  1. Be present. Once you are being present with yourself (as stated above), it makes it much easier to be present for others. Give them your full attention, it always is experienced as a gift. Listen to them if you can, without interrupting or correcting, and help them find their inner compasses too.
  2. Share a vision of what’s possible, to help others recognize you believe you will all make it through together. Help them with what to focus on. If appropriate, help them prepare. Most important is expressing confidence that despite challenges, we will all make it through this together.
  3. Communicate often. During times of ambiguity, we need more contact than during normal times. Get people together to discuss concerns and steer the group towards remembering team and personal resilience. Share updates whenever you can. Be as transparent as you can, as early as possible.

We have a tremendous capacity for change, though our first response may be fight or flight, ultimately we can weather any storm if we remember who we are and what we stand for.

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