The past few years of economic crisis has made attempting to manage a business an experience with undeniable similarities to navigating a river with “permanent whitewater.” Management today, and into the unforeseeable future, must be able to complete a lot of important work in a short time under harrowing conditions, on the basis of only a few hunches and a lot of instinct, none of them precise.
Leadership plays a vital role in navigating this permanent whitewater. It differs from the role a leader plays in more stable environments. As Albert Einstein said, “there is nothing that is more certain a sign of insanity than to do the same thing over and over again and expect the results to be different.” When the marketplace is predictable, sticking with the tried-and-true works. But when the conditions include constant change and turbulence, the roles of leader and follower constantly shift. The players must routinely realign their working relationships as situations change and different skill sets are needed. As anyone who has ever negotiated through white-water rapids knows, the leader may at times find him or herself neck deep in whitewater, unable to command. The followers then suddenly find themselves thrust into roles of responsibility.
Unfortunately, current economic conditions have exposed an organisational vacuum that I have been forecasting for years: the inability of many mangers to keep pace when change is complex and conditions are ambiguous and dynamic. In many organisations, managers are expected to process information in real-time but their bandwidth is still “dial-up.” Many managers have been thrown head first into new positions of authority and responsibility. Yet they lack the depth and breadth of skills to deal with the unintended consequences of past decisions and unprecedented environmental changes. Successful leaders will possess the ability to respond effectively to the increased pace of change in an unstable, technologically advanced, globalised economy.
My research has uncovered three key drivers of effective innovative leadership: dealing with ambiguity, resiliency, and authenticity.
Effectively dealing with ambiguity is perhaps the one area where corporate America has the most trouble. Being able to operate in unprecedented, complex and fast-changing conditions means you must be able to deal with uncertainty and vagueness. Every decision you make when you don’t have all the information you need entails some sort of risk.
Most businesses however reward predictability, thereby penalising innovation. Avoiding risk is paramount for career success when playing by the rules offers rewards, recognition and promotion. Initiatives like Six Sigma and TQM focused on zero-defects, attempting to remove even the slightest hint of ambiguity. While these initiatives created unprecedented improvements in productivity, they crushed the ability and/or willingness for people to innovate.
When times were stable and predictable, the need to deal effectively with ambiguity was marginally important. Times have changed abruptly. Succeeding under today’s economic conditions requires management to navigate decisions and solve problems with extreme confidence albeit through a sea of uncertainty. Ninety percent of the problems that managers solve are ambiguous – it’s neither clear what the problem is nor what the solution is. The competitive edge will go to those who can comfortably make good decisions with less than all the information, in less time, with few or no precedents on how it was solved before.
A second driver is resiliency, the ability to rebound, adapt and learn even in the face of adversity and stress. Resilient people have the uncanny ability to pick themselves up after being knocked down. From nearly any experience, they’re able to create options – they know there’s always a way out and they will find it. It’s important to avoid confusing resiliency with its polar opposite rigidity. Rigidity is represented by inflexibility, a desire to stick to the plan at all costs even when the evidence is overwhelmingly stacked against success. Rigidity infers a fear of failure and a need to be right. Resilience in the face of adversity requires adaptability and flexibility and is the greatest long-term predictor of success. As Thomas Edison said, ‘there is always a way to do it better…find it.”
Authenticity is a third driver. Authentic means meaning what you say and saying what you mean. Authentic people are straight-shooters; they believe that living by their core beliefs is the most important and highest value. Their actions are congruent with values: they walk the talk and are not afraid to “tell it like it is.” You may not always like what the authentic person says, but you always know where he or she stands on an issue. The opposite of authentic is political. Political people are always navigating or positioning for self-advantage. Authenticity is about being genuine. When navigating the uncertainty of permanent whitewater, politics and self-interest are at the very least destructive traits and at their worst deadly strategies.
Navigating a business successfully through turbulent times requires the ability to deal with ambiguity, be resilient in the face of adversity, and being authentic. Consequently, leading through permanent whitewater requires flexibility, humility, and, paradoxically, the willingness to follow when others are better equipped to lead.
About the Author:
As president of Success Performance Solutions, Ira S Wolfe has led his workforce consulting firm to national prominence, helping organizations find and hire the right employees and identify high-potential leaders. He is an expert on hiring, workforce trends, managing the generations, and the author of several books including Perfect Labor Storm 2.0: Workforce Trends That Will Change The Way You Do Business.