We are living and operating in an increasingly chaotic, volatile and unpredictable world. How do we plan when we cannot see around the corner? How do we maintain our values when nothing seems certain? How do we endure turbulent restructuring and change? What is the leadership mode or model that can save us? Does it even make sense to look for a model? At the root of these unanswerable questions is often a ‘why?’ Confronted with this challenging environment, as humans we strive to discern some meaningful framework from it by which we might comprehend, decide what to do, or just endure these testing times.
The truth is that I personally don’t know what to do much of the time – and this is also true of many of the leaders I work with. There are no clear-cut answers, models, frameworks or tools that can always lead us with certainty back to safety. However, one thing I do wholeheartedly believe is that there are things that we can do in order to equip ourselves with the kind of mindfulness and inner resolve that will be needed in order to stay grounded and lead through such turbulence. Here are a few perspectives that I have collected from others, including spiritual teachers, that I have found useful in my own practice:
Deciding not to decide – Living the questions
Life is a rollercoaster of change, uncertainty and disruption, but rejecting this chaos or relying on old, familiar practices won’t help. Learning to change and live with uncertainty is challenging for many of us. But what if we practised opening ourselves to surprise and disruption, learning to keep the space for decision making open for longer? What if we could hold our key questions in mind, tolerate the discomfort of ‘not knowing’ and mindfully wait to see what emerges in response to holding the question? There is much to be learnt from this approach, but it takes enormous courage not to flee back into the comfort of taking action. As the poet Rainier Maria Rilke put it, ‘be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language (…) And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.’
Accepting the lack of control we have over our existence becomes a form of wisdom, in this regard, as it means accepting a fundamental fact of life. Admitting to others that you don’t have the answer can also be a powerful leadership intervention, opening up the frame for others to contribute to finding the way forwards. This approach needs a willingness to show vulnerability and a faith in your companions’ ability to face uncomfortable truths alongside you, as equal adults. Supporting each other through this journey – even if the destination is unclear – may yield unexpected new skills, insights and capacities for all parties.
Meaning and purpose
People are motivated by meaning. This means that in order to be our best selves, we need purposeful work that we can believe in, that fulfils us, and that drives forward our every behaviour, choice and action. It is useful occasionally to ask ourselves: What do we hope to accomplish here? What are we serving with our work? What is it that is motivating us?
The leadership challenge is to reconnect people with a sense of meaningful purpose: their own, their team’s and the broader aim of the organisation. This connection to a deeper source of motivation, beyond just self, is really important in uncertain times, creating a yardstick for people to see new opportunities in an emerging landscape. It can also help to unlock people’s productivity in difficult times; most people want to do work that they believe in.
Developing a practice
So how can leaders develop this peace of mind and purpose, regardless of the challenges they face? As spiritual teachers have told us for thousands of years: a spiritual path is not a matter of thinking, telling or guessing. It is a matter of practice – you have to live it into your flesh, bones, heart and mind. We can all improve our capacity to hold questions without seeking immediate answers, craft a meaningful purpose, notice more mindfully what is going on around us, be grateful for what we have, let go of old habits and find new ones that make us feel peaceful. It’s a matter of practice, all we need to do next is start!
Delfino Corti - Senior Consultant, Impact Italy