There are lots of leaders who are good at handling dramatic events. For example look at the life of a paramedic, they arrive on the scene and the place is chaotic, a hysterical mom is holding her newborn baby who is blue and obviously stopped breathing. Immediately he and his partner focus in on the baby and start to apply the learned skills they have practiced over and over again for this specific moment. All the noise and distractions of the mom, the TV blaring in the background, the dark dingy conditions all fade away, getting that baby to breathe is their sole purpose for that moment. They are single minded and they are purposeful. You see this type of reactive leadership in hospitals all the time; a patient is stabilized in the emergency room and transported upstairs to the Intensive Care Unit.
Immediately, doctors and nurses take a course of action applying learned skills and years of experience and knowledge to this patient. To those on the outside it may appear disorganized, but to those involved it is a symphony. In my own personal experience that is why I choose to work on a rescue squad, that is why I went on to become a pediatric emergency room and Intensive Care Unit nurse, I was built to lead in times of tragedy, to exercise high leverage skills that are vital at that very moment. That got me thinking…
How well do I lead in times where the tragedy is more of a slow fade into failure or calamity?
Think about a time when you have lead a team, department, or organization through dramatic change, only that change took place over years and not seconds. Did you find yourself in the beginning raring to go? Like a race horse lined up at the gate, pumped, ready, full of adrenaline? The project was energizing and you were seen as a masterful leader; then that first speed bump occurred? OK you might have thought to yourself (I certainly did), no big deal, we can get past this. All this project needs is a little more leadership. Most of the time it’s not the first bump in the road that throws us, it’s the accumulation of those bumps that ever so slightly shifts the direction in which we are heading. According to my friend Dan who is a Navy pilot, for every single degree you fly off course, you will miss your intended target by 92 feet for every mile you fly. That is significant, but what is most significant about it is that the human mind cannot tell you are one degree off course. It is impossible for a leader to feel that one degree shift; stay with me now, some of you may be saying that is not true I certainly can tell. I argue that there are only two ways you can tell your slowing fading off course:
1) You have instrumentation to alert you
2) Enough of the landscape has changed to alert you that you are not in Kansas anymore
In terms of the first indicator; most of us do not have robust instrumentation to run our business or projects. We spend a lot of time trying to create these sophisticated support systems, but most of the time the project is completed before we get it right. In most cases we have to rely on some data and a lot of opinion. As for the second indicator, this is one of those places as a leader where the rubber meets the road. You are now well aware you are off course, as a leader what will you do to adjust? You are not so much off course that slight adjustments cannot fix the project, after all this is a long journey were on, but at the same time failure to make any adjustments will result in missing the target completely.
In the theory of the slow fade this is where the question of leadership drive comes into play. What drives you as a leader? What drives me as a leader? During times of slow fade, you do not have to react in a moment’s notice, you do not have to swerve to miss that oncoming car, no during a slow fade what you are faced with is the mundane, the gritty details, the “what if” scenarios. There is a lot of time in the slow fade to think. This is probably where the phrase “Analysis through Paralysis” came from. For those standing on the fringes all looks well, but to those your leading, those tasked with the work, there is a slow descent into indifference that as their leader you are required to intervene. It is not that they want to feel indifferent or to say their passion is gone, no it is to say that a slow fade leads to compromise, it must. Just as I demonstrated with the plane analogy, you cannot be off course and expect to arrive at your pre-planned destination, you must correct your course to get there or you must compromise and accept that you will be landing somewhere different than what you planned. The slow fade is more dangerous in my opinion than those tragic events because it erodes your influence as a leader. It plants a seed of mediocrity.
As a self-confessed crisis leader I cannot become a great leader if I am unable to lead in all conditions, but I will admit that these slow fade conditions do not keep me motivated. So, how do I turn this around because in corporate leadership most of the time we are dealing with slow fades more than we are instant tragedies. The remedy is to look at it from the outcome back to the event, what I mean here is to picture the outcome of these subtle events and reconcile that with the projects purpose and goal. As a leader I must have the foresight to project what slight degree changes will look like before they happen and then I must get others to see the compounded impact over time. One thing that motivates me as a leader is engagement; this is where I can draw my strength in a slow fade, engaging my staff to correct the course because they believe in the initial target, the purpose, the need to arrive at the place we said we would arrive. The way I am most successful at engagement during these times of slow fade is by having key relationships with those around me, listening to their council, and intervening at the right times; leaning not on my understanding but on the collective.
How as a leader do you stay on course both in your personal journey and in your professional life? I’d love to hear your stories.