(interest: Garath is a friend and sometime collaborator)
A few years ago I went to a job interview and was asked a question about how I deal with uncertainty. In my answer I described myself as someone who is ‘comfortable with uncertainty’. At the time I had recently completed an executive education programme on systems leadership where we considered the idea of a VUCA world. VUCA being a term first coined by the US military and stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The term VUCA has now become something of a cliche, and for good reason as it perfectly describes the modern operating context not just for the military, but for public services, not-for-profits and the commercial sector.
The same programme focussed on the idea of Adaptive Leadership, developed at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, as the profound social technology to lead in uncertain times. This learning experience helped me give what sounded like a well informed answer at interview. I also believed it to be true, I believed that I was ‘comfortable with uncertainty’ and that adaptive leaders have this capability. My answer convinced the interviewer and I got the job.
Today I know uncertainty triggers anxiety for me and is something I have to work on. How then did I convince myself of the opposite? My answer for myself is that I had heard that this was how leaders were supposed to be and I believed it. It became part of a ‘story’ that I told myself and I clung onto it. Often these story lines can get in the way of our leadership; I was unconsciously lying to myself because it fitted a model that I had imagined about how leaders should be.
Denying anxiety as I did, may only put the day of overwhelm off. Through coaching and work on myself I have noticed the role anxiety plays in my psychology and how it is often triggered by uncertainty. My habit, developed over a lifetime, was to push this emotion away and to tough it out. This wasn’t something that started in my leadership career, its origins were much earlier. My own experience of being a coach has shown me that I’m not the only one, our past presents in the moment for all of us. The challenge is to become increasingly aware of how old habits impact on how we lead today.
One senior leader I worked with would do anything to avoid conflict, he oscillated between trying to please everyone and taking an authoritarian style that closed conflict down abruptly and often aggressively. In coaching I asked about his experience of his family of origin – he described a childhood characterised by continual conflict. He was eventually able to link this experience to what was happening today, noting the feelings of uncertainty and insecurity that conflict provoked and how the same tapes were still being played out.
Becoming aware of this unconscious process allowed the leader to see it happening and grow in the capacity to change. Seeing it means you don’t have to be it. For me, this is what leading with awareness means; working on your blind spots and making them conscious. This work involves observing yourself with objectivity, without the normal judgements we make when we notice something we don’t like about ourselves.
This is very similar to an adaptive leadership practice known as ‘balcony work’. When an adaptive leader ‘gets on the balcony’ they view the ‘dance floor’ (system) observing what is happening and working out what intervention to make. The difference is that the system here is your inner-system and its about what is going on interiorly, your thoughts, feelings and sensations. Cultivating this ‘noticing practice’ supports us to be in uncertain situations, seeing and even dropping our unhelpful storylines.
My storyline was: ‘I’m comfortable with uncertainty’ and this created a blindspot that prevented me seeing what was really happening. It made it harder for me to be comfortable with who I am (an ordinary person who dislikes uncertainty and is continually looking for solid ground). My insistence on clinging to this idea resulted in me pushing my emotions away and I avoided working with my anxiety.
Freud saw anxiety as a signal to the ego of a potential threat. These signals are received physiologically by the amygdala, which resides in our ancient limbic brain and is associated with our fight, flight or freeze instinct. Many situations can activate this instinct: change, uncertainty, loss, rejection and fear of failure – all of which might characterise our current context as we move from one adaptive challenge to the next (remember Brexit?).
In the context of organisational leadership it’s no longer threat of physical attack, but rather a threat to our ego, perhaps our status, our model of ourselves, the story we tell. It may be that your story is getting in the way of your ability to connect with others, to lead.
The Covid19 pandemic is going to tragically affect so many families. Things we once took for granted are now under threat; our health, jobs, and businesses, potentially creating a pandemic of anxiety. This crisis might be inviting us to view our experience differently, put some space between us and our experience so we can see what is going on more clearly, pause and reflect on what to do.
This shock to our system may have some adaptive results, the need to reduce air travel and car use has been immediately achieved – for a time at least. A new global narrative has started to emerge similar to that of people who get a health scare and then reflect: ‘I might need to re-think my lifestyle…’ How we sustainably adapt as a global community remains to be seen, our personal adaptions in the face of uncertainty and anxiety are something we can all take responsibility for.
Garath Symonds is a Executive Coach, learn more at www.garathsymondscoaching.com