• Mark Topley

Personal thoughts on leading through uncertainty

I didn’t intend to write a blog on the current Corona Virus pandemic. There are plenty of people offering some good advice out there, and sadly plenty more blustering around on social media, desperate for some certainty. And it was for the latter reason that I thought a few of my reflections might be helpful. And so whether it’s catharsis, or there’s something useful for you here, I offer a few of my thoughts on leading through uncertainty.

One of the reasons I’m keen to share on this is that I’ve been here before. As CEO of Bridge2Aid, living and working with my young family in the heart of East Africa for 10 years, we encountered our fair share of threats, crises and challenges. Things that often came out of the blue to threaten our health, safety and livelihood. I’ve realised that the experiences I’ve had in the past have given me insights and perspective that could be useful to others:

  1. The threat of Bird Flu and the need to navigate months of uncertainty and readiness to evacuate

  2. Ebola outbreaks and the sudden slow-down in people willing to travel, as well as the threat of transmission across borders

  3. The overall rise of, and nasty spikes in regional terrorism just a few miles away

  4. 30% of our organisational income being wiped off by a downturn, just after we had scaled for growth

  5. Major dental contracts being lost – 50% of the clinic’s income disappearing at one point

  6. Travel bans and countless regulatory changes to the supply of volunteers, putting the basis of the operation at risk.

These were just a few of the challenges we had to deal with, and ones that I personally had to learn how to face – intellectually, emotionally and practically. And we did. We came through. The unknown is a scary place for most of us because predictability is such a given in so many areas of our lives nowadays.

The following thoughts are mine personally, and about leadership. Others have written some excellent posts on the more practical aspects of dealing with the current situation – Chris Barrow & Kevin Rose have blogged, and there’s an excellent Simon Sinek video too. And following government advice on slowing the spread of the virus through hand-washing, distancing where appropriate etc are a given.

What did I learn, and what am I keen to remember as we enter this period of uncertainty?

The Stockdale Paradox

Confront the brutal facts of your reality, but commit to an unwavering belief that you will get through. The Stockdale paradox is named after James Stockdale, a veteran of the Vietnam War POW camps. He observed during his incarceration what made the difference between those who survived, and who didn’t. Many prisoners died because they either failed to accept the position they were in or set a timescale for their rescue. And when those arbitrary deadlines passed, they lost hope and died. The ones who survived were those who accepted their situation but retained a hope that they would get out. So the first thing I am taking on board this week is that there’s a new normal. Get used to it. This year will no longer be what you expected it to be. Confront the brutal facts of your reality. But also commit to an unwavering belief that you will find a way through. Don’t attach a timescale, don’t attach conditions, but decide right now that you will find a way.

Plan when you’ll ‘worry’

Setting aside time to think through your worst-case scenario (and best case) is also important. Rather than letting the thoughts of what you might have to do if X, Y or Z happens to wander unrestrained around your mind all day (or night), follow through this exercise outlined in Chris’s blog and get your thoughts down on paper. Invite your team into creatively problem solving with you. After all, we are all in this together. As a coach of mine once encouraged me – book a time to worry about what might happen, write it down, and then get back to work.

Let go of what you can’t control

We make every effort to control our environments and our lives, and for the most part, that’s a good thing. In situations like this though, far greater forces are at play, and it is pointless to worry about what you can’t control. Instead, focus on what Sport Psychologist Steve Bull calls the ‘controllable’. It’s not your job to try and control what you can’t, but it is absolutely your responsibility to control what you can. And in this case, a lot of that will be down to how you choose to approach the situation – with fear, individualism or panic, or with resolve, calm and generosity.

Look after yourself

And so for the internal side of life, there are things that become even more important for me at times like this. Practising gratitude. Makings sure I exercise and get outside. Having fun with family and friends. This feeds the mind and the soul. And a healthy mind, body and soul are what you need to get through a tough time.

Choose wisely

Finally, be very careful who you hang out with. This goes for physically and digitally. Not everyone is a good influence and worth listening to at times like these. Many people express their own concerns in ways which can stoke uncertainty. During the toughest situations we faced, I chose to strictly limit social media and the news (apart from one or two trusted outlets) and spent much more time with positive people. Being 4,500 miles away from my closest friends and confidants at times was hard, but the Skypes and phone calls were vital. Maintain positive influencers and influences, and close the door on others.

I hope that’s helpful. Time to get to work.

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