The car was driving like a dream. The engine was firing sweetly, the gentle breeze coming through the cabin. Life was sweet. And then, with no warning the car’s front end pulled to the left, the rear end pulled to the right. Instinctively, your grip tightened on the wheel and you twisted the wheel to the right to pull it back in line. But this normal correction was not working. The wheels, having hit oil on the road had no traction. You’re a skilled driver and so you continue to use the corrective measures to bring this beautiful classic, that you’ve spent years nurturing to its current state, back into line. But, all to no avail. Your mind is racing and in a split second you realise the car is out of control through no fault of yours and it cannot be kept on course and so now your aim is to limit the damage to you, to others and the car you love.
Feeling out of control is a horrible feeling, and yet it is an experience that many leaders are feeling at the moment. Maybe you are a business leader that has seen company orders disappear literally overnight and income with it. Maybe you are an education leader that has seen schools change their purpose and set up. Maybe you are a charity leader that has seen its ministry halted by an inability to get to the people that it serves. It was all going well until Coronavirus and the restrictions hit.
So, how do leaders respond when things go out of control? The natural instinct, like the car metaphor at the start is to try to control the situation, to keep on track with the journey you were on. It takes energy and high levels of stress. And yet, as maybe we are discovering, all that was normal is no longer normal and the journey can’t, for the moment, continue as it was. As leaders, we need to discover a key truth here:
We have been used to playing games by a certain set of rules but those rules have now changed. The temptation is to try to continue playing by the old set of rules but in the current Coronavirus world that will just bring defeat and frustration as there are new rules and parameters. There is a strange peace when you know that you have tried your best but you need to let go. You are letting go, not to give up, but to focus your energies to a direction that will help you rebuild and grow.
Control how you respond
When things happen to us, particularly when it is no fault of our own, our emotional part of our brain can try to take over. We can feel like a victim, feel angry, feel upset. These are natural responses. But, we can still choose to respond differently. Instead of seeing ourselves as a victim we can choose to see ourselves as a leader.
There is a famous line in the film Braveheart, where William Wallace speaks to the Scottish warriors assembled to take on the English army far bigger than them. When he says to them, “They may take away our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom,” he is saying what you face will be hard but you still have the freedom to choose how to respond. Our enemy is different and almost unseen. So what does choosing how to respond look like?
Emerging Leaders’ Leadership for Life programme, explains that when we see ourselves as a leader it is about three A’s.
ASK - What would a leader think, say and do in this situation.
ADMIT – I am a leader.
ACT like that leader.
Sure, I am worried and scared about what will happen to my business that I have spent years building. I am upset for my staff. I am frustrated by the hassle of trying to get through to my bank to arrange support. It all seems too much. But, I can choose to make a plan. I can choose to respond calmly. I can choose to focus my energies on things that I can change.
The tendency is for our minds to catastrophise the situation, 'it's going to end in disaster'. But try instead of reminding yourself of times before when you have come through seemingly impossible situations and got through. Then choose to reframe it, such as, 'it's going to be tough and things will hurt but I will get through this'.
The restrictions and changes enforced by the Coronavirus is taking many things from us but we don’t have to let it take from us the person that we want to be.
Three years ago, I was suddenly thrown into a position of no work and no money. I had two mantras:
1. Bitterness will remain far from my door
2. What story do I want to write?
They served me well then as I set up Everyday Leader and they continue to serve me well now. I will lend those to you for the current situation.
Focus your energy on what you can control
How you use your energy now will be crucial to help you and your organisation ‘survive and thrive’. Examine what the new rules of the game are and decide what can you do
that will bring energy to you and your organisation. What are the two things that you have control over that will have the greatest impact?
It could be
Financials. Eg securing government support, reducing long term financial risk
Marketplace adaptation eg switching to online/remote working
Company role at this time eg supporting NHS, supporting people through your media
You may have others too. But decide on one or two areas and put your energy into that.
No-one has a crystal ball on this. There is no road map for us to follow as we are in a unique situation. What can drive you forward at times like this? It is your compass. What is your true north? What are your values as a person and a company? Let those drive the areas that you want to focus on and control what you can control.