When confronted with something completely unprecedented in your experience, it is a best practice habit to follow a simple progression of thought, and as soon as possible. In other words: get after it immediately!
It is almost incredible how many families, congregations, neighborhood organizations, and enterprises small and large are waiting rather than chasing — standing on the brakes rather than stepping on the gas. What is the difference? If you and your organization drink deeply from hard-won mission/vision/values, you have the guidance and governance under which to accelerate through change. If you are still hemming and hawing about the proper words, or about whether a mission statement even matters, then you are hemming and hawing during COVID, election insanities, social unrest, and economic uncertainty.
Find your creative space and start working through these questions. Do it without delay. If you need to work alone first, get to that isolated cabin (garage corner, corona-office, etc.) . If you need people, get some people. One way or another, do this mental wrestling:
- What wisdom was left for us by others as they faced their unprecedented circumstances? What implications might there be for our time?
- What actually is happening? What do trends imply?
- Why does doing anything/something even matter? Toward what end are we wanting to move?
- What do we know that we do not know? How will we gather insight?
- Who is going to play which role as we address these hard circumstances?
- When do we want to complete the next stage of our work of addressing this?
- How, exactly, are we going to go after this?
Asking these questions brings a holistic and comprehensive data set, and quickly.
Don’t worry about answering the questions in a particular order. But do worry about answering them all.
Worry that when you have populated them, they flow together and have continuity.
Worry that your core team has helped to formulate them and is in explicit agreement with them.
Worry that all of your communication from here draws directly from this core document.
Worry that this becomes your central reference point for all subsequent work.
Worry that as new data comes to light, you will reconvene and adjust the core document with the same rigor with which it was formed in the first place!
Don’t worry about it - and watch future opportunity vaporize and current value disintegrate.
I was taught to think quickly and thoroughly by a college professor. Interestingly, but not incomprehensibly, he also taught the artful oratory approach to preaching. His work has influenced almost forty years of my life thus far, helping to guide extended families of blood, faith, neighborhood, town, business, and state in the critical issues of the day. This way of thinking and working influenced my parenting and family life — raising children, shepherding my family through long years of my first wife’s physical suffering, and deciding to marry again and blend a family. It also helped me build a business for the long term, with legacy in mind.
Getting more specific, this thoughtful rush to triage and problem solve before reactively responding (or not responding at all) has helped my leadership through
- The sudden increase of high-risk latchkey children in the streets surrounding the church I pastored
- The mystery of AIDS and how to respond to it
- Greater societal acceptance of what was once considered vice
- Mergers and Acquisitions gone awry
- Capital funding efforts gone off the rails
- Death and departure of business partners
- Death of a spouse
- Introducing new products and services to markets that didn’t even know they needed such a thing
There is no individual credit taken here. It always took a team of people who knew far more than I and who could leverage their gifts to make something good happen that restored, healed, offered hope, or in some way made the world a little better.
A few observations on where we are at this time and the benefits of this thoughtfully rapid approach:
- We really are not in an unprecedented moment, even though it might feel that way. Something like this will happen again. And then again.
- "Normal" has not changed. Normal involves death, dying, pestilence, famine, war, and suffering. Our normal is working to minimize these, reduce, limit, and find respite from them. Then our descendants are not harmed by our selfish responses but rather are uplifted by our courageous service and prepared to serve those who proceed from them. Perhaps we have had some years to vacation from this reality; perhaps we have squandered the time. Perhaps now we are ready to re-engage the real work of building a purposeful and civic-minded human community.
- Moving to describing as objective a future state as possible is the starting point of a leader in difficult moments. After doing this we can begin gathering resources and people around that description. Getting at the questions listed above help us do this, and roles, actions, and objectives now become external reference points for all those who join us in making something happen. They help us pick up the needed leadership habit of always checking in with
- that is where we were,
- here is where we are, and
- there is where we are going.
- Working this way helps us redirect and even incorporate dissent. If someone wishes to be an enemy to the process of thinking and then acting, they cannot hide in the shadows; the objectives toward which we strive are not hidden and are regularly communicated. Their enmity is thus tied to the effort in which we are engaged far more than a personal hatred. It really is difficult to hate a person who is offering you a listening ear, is not stepping on your dignity and treats you with respect — even when they disagree with you.
- Significantly less time gets wasted by stopping, thinking, gathering resources, and then acting. When one is the fool who rushes in or the fool who thinks tomorrow is the day to do something, time and resources disappear through myriad holes.
It requires the highest fortitude to not rush in and then to turn one’s strength toward building from a foundation even as it seems the house is falling down. If we can learn anything from this moment in history as leaders, it is that the house is falling down, and that we are absolute fools if our normal is delay, denial, and waiting for someone else to do something for our benefit.
Mark L. Vincent is Founder of Design Group International and Society for Process Consulting. He also facilitates Maestro-level leaders for executives in their Third Turn, and co-hosts the Third Turn Podcast with Jeanette Robért of MarketPlace Chaplains. The next Maestro-level leaders cohort gets underway in January 2021.