San Francisco is rather famous for its fog. But, did you know that the fog has a name? Yep: Karl. Karl even has instagram and twitter accounts.
The thing is, Karl can be so thick at times that you can barely see more than a few feet in front of you. When that happens you can’t drive at normal speed—if at all. It doesn’t matter where you are going or how soon you are supposed to get there. Your only option is to slow down and adapt to the crippling blanket of fog.
This pandemic is like that. We can burn all the calories we’d like to wishing that things were different, but they aren’t. All of us are now driving through a blanket of fog and every indication is that it’s not going to clear up for some time.
This is the part two on “How to lead through a long hard slog.” In the first installment, I wrote about three seductive temptations we need to avoid as leaders in a long hard season like this. Now, it’s time to flip the coin and talk about a few of the big things we should do to empower our people and our organizations to move forward through a time like this.
#1.) TELL THE TRUTH
In the waters of leadership expectations where many of us learned to swim lurks the notion that we should protect our people by only telling them what we think they can handle. Translation: shield them from the truth as if they were weak and incapable of handling reality without our help. I am arguing that it is time to blow up that disempowering notion.
One of the most important factors in navigating difficult times is the ability of people to trust their leaders. One essential criteria of trust lies in knowing that we can trust our leaders to tell us the truth.
As a leader, learn to tell the truth about how things are going, about the things you are facing, about the questions you cannot answer. Be honest in a simple straight-forward way. Speak the truth without manipulative hyperbole or emotional anxiety. Whether talking about finances, limitations, or problems you face, don’t sugar coat or exaggerate reality.
A good friend of mine used to say, “There are no degrees of truthfulness. But, there are degrees of disclosure.” It’s probable that everyone doesn’t need to know everything you know as a leader. But everything they hear from you needs to be plainly true. And, the moment you start thinking they can’t handle the truth, you need to choose to trust your people more.
#2.) FALL IN LOVE WITH CONTINGENCIES
It is so tempting to believe that our job as leaders is to develop bullet-proof plans. To think that we should be able to factor in every variable. To think that perfect plans give people hope. We would be wrong.
Leaders who embrace the uncertainty of reality with non-anxious adaptability build hope and security in their people and their organization.
Let’s put the first principle into practice. Let’s tell ourselves the truth. The truth is, none of us know what lies ahead nor how we will need to adapt to it. We are driving through Karl with 20 feet of visibility. We have to slow down, stay nimble, and hold our best plans in open palms.
Far too often leaders hold their plans and ideas with a death grip. However, slogging our way through an unpredictable pandemic (or even through a long hard multi-faceted project) calls for deliberate contingency planning.
To be specific: as you make decisions or plans for anything in the future, consider making contingency plans that go 4 levels deep.
Plan A: Your preferred plan for what could work.
Plan B: Typically a reduced or adapted version of “Plan A.”
Plan C: A creative alternative that with shared flavor and outcome to “Plan A.”
Plan D: A wholly new idea you’ve never considered before.
The name of the game in contingency planning is simply asking “What would we do if…?” What if we don’t have a vaccine in the next few months? What if travel bans increase? What if the ability of groups to gather is restricted further? What if finances are too tight?
The more your people see their leaders owning the reality of unpredictability and showing it in the way they plan, the less they will be thrown off-balance by adaptive changes that need to be made.
#3.) STAY ATTENTIVE TO THE PRESENT
Leaders think about the future, but people live in the present.
Just like the fog forces drivers to slow way down and increase their attention to the details right before them, seasons of difficulty call for leaders to do the same.
Pay attention to the emotional temperature of your people. Take time to empathize with the roller coaster people are riding. Talk about the details and the nuances of the trends that captivate the concerns of your people. Leaders who don’t attend to the reality of day-to-day life where their people live come across as out of touch and lacking in compassion.
Leaders must learn to nurture a tension others try to avoid. In times of crisis, we who are leaders must pay attention to the details of current reality and decelerate as needed. At the same time, we must keep a firm grip on the big picture of where we are going. We cannot allow our church, our team, or our business, to lose sight of our ultimate mission while we are attending to short-range details. Good leaders keep one hand on the present and one on the future.
To say it a different way, we need to stand with our people as they focus on the trees, while we keep the whole forest in perspective. And, we have to let go of our desire to promote a forest-wide viewpoint when our people are struggling with the branches and the bark right in front of them.
The question behind this post and its predecessor is, “how do we lead our people and our organizations effectively through a long hard slog?” It is one of the most important questions we can ask. When times are easy we can often sneak by without such deliberate attention on issues like these. But during a crisis or during any long uphill climb, the rules of the game change. Uncertainty has a way of putting people on edge. Fatigue wipes out flexibility and elasticity in an organization. The inability to see any sort of finish line dilutes hope and security in the present.
That’s why you signed up to be a leader.
Leaders have the chance to set the compass and control the pace for their people. So, cultivate these habits and see if you don’t find surprising joy as you slog your way through the unexpected adventures of the journey.