A Leadership Framework to Navigate Challenging Times

Sometimes an entire decade of change can occur in an instant.

This “decade in an instant” idea perfectly captures how so many of us feel right now, both personally and professionally. We are experiencing an extreme velocity of change, economic and social disruption, unknowns around the COVID-19 pandemic’s duration and severity, personal / family stress, and risks to our health.

These events and the emotions that are attached to them have been front-and-center over the past several weeks as I’ve engaged with my coaching clients — CEOs and their executive teams running mid-market firms — to help them find their way through the crisis. For some, it’s a matter of survival; for others, there are real opportunities; for all, it’s a far cry from business as usual.

Research tells us that we’re more likely to fall victim to our biases and emotions as uncertainty and time pressure increase. Structured, disciplined thinking, on the other hand, reduces the risk. 

To help my clients navigate the times, I assembled this three-pillar framework:

  • The Stockdale Paradox
  • Return on Luck
  • Speed to Decisions and Action

We use these mental models as our shared foundation for motivation, thinking, decision-making, and prioritization.

Pillar #1: The Stockdale Paradox

Originally shared by Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great,” the Stockdale Paradox provides guidance on how to manage through extreme uncertainty.

Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking American military officer captured during the Vietnam War. He spent 8 gruesome years in the “Hanoi Hilton” and was tortured over twenty times. Yet by his own account, he emerged from the prison camp stronger than he went in.  

After he returned home, he explained how he survived and why both optimists and pessimists were the first ones to die in the camp: the pessimists had no hope, and the optimists died of broken hearts — they gave up — as their hopes of safe release were perennially dashed. 

Jim Stockdale survived because he retained faith that he would prevail and emerge stronger, regardless of the difficulties AND because he continually confronted the brutal facts of his current reality, whatever they were at the time. 

This is the paradox and the path forward through today’s uncertainty and extreme conditions: maintain unwavering faith that you will emerge better and stronger WHILE ALSO confronting the brutal facts and probabilities about the current reality.

Pillar #2: Return on Luck

I’ve used the Return on Luck (ROL) mental model with my clients for years with great impact. This concept also originated from Jim Collins, this time in his book “Great By Choice.” 

Here’s how he describes ROL:

“Our research showed that the great companies were not generally luckier than the comparisons—they did not get more good luck, less bad luck, bigger spikes of luck, or better timing of luck. Instead, they got a higher return on luck, making more of their luck than others. The critical question is not, Will you get luck? but What will you do with the luck that you get?”

The idea here is that both good- and bad-luck events happen to people and businesses all roughly equally. What makes the biggest difference is how you (and your team) respond to luck events, whether good or bad.

We’re in the midst of a giant “luck” event. This mental model ensures that you seek opportunity and a positive return, even in the face of extreme adversity. It’s always there if you have the discipline to seek it.

Pillar #3: Speed to Decisions and Actions

In their books “Extreme Ownership” and “The Dichotomy of Leadership,” authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin underscore how critical it is to match your decision-making speed and time to action with the pace of the environment in which you are operating.

While this is an easy concept to understand, in practice it’s quite difficult to implement – particularly in rapidly changing conditions that are not your norm as a leader. Here’s why:

We want to make the right choices, so we tend to wait for perfect (or near-perfect) information before making a decision and taking action. We want to optimize our resources, so we tend to rationalize delayed action as efficient and, therefore, ok. We are creatures of habit who are well outside of our comfort zone, so we hesitate, seek reassurances, and often mistakenly over-weigh optimistic projections and outcomes.

Make a conscious effort to accelerate decision-making and speed to action in your organization. No, you’re not always going to be right, but there’s usually more to lose by way of indecisiveness and/or delayed the execution.

Yes, we’re a far cry from business as usual. This is exactly why you should use the three pillar mental models actively with your team. As I’m seeing with my coaching clients, you’ll stack the deck in favor of achieving the best possible outcomes with the resources at your disposal through this period of uncertainty and extreme change.

Resources I’ve Found Valuable

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter cases, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. I’ll share a select few in each edition of my newsletter — particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief

“Some of the HBR staff met virtually the other day — a screen full of faces in a scene becoming more common everywhere. We talked about the content we’re commissioning in this harrowing time of a pandemic and how we can help people. But we also talked about how we were feeling. One colleague mentioned that what she felt was grief. Heads nodded in all the panes.

If we can name it, perhaps we can manage it. We turned to David Kessler, the world’s foremost expert on grief, for ideas on how to do that. Kessler shared his thoughts on why it’s important to acknowledge the grief you may be feeling, how to manage it, and how he believes we will find meaning in it…”

https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief?inf_contact_key=f10da90ba6652c109066ff30eaa2cf0d

Preserving Optionality: Preparing for the Unknown

We don’t often get the advice to keep our options open. Instead, we’re told to specialize by investing huge hours in our passion so we can be successful in a niche.

The problem is, it’s bad advice. We live in a world that’s constantly changing, and if we can’t respond effectively to those changes, we become redundant, frustrated, and useless.

Instead of focusing on becoming great at one thing, there is another, counterintuitive strategy that will get us further: preserving optionality. The more options we have, the better suited we are to deal with unpredictability and uncertainty. We can stay calm when others panic because we have choices…”

https://fs.blog/2020/03/preserving-optionality/

5 Unforgettable Leadership Lessons from
“Manager of the Century” Jack Welch

.
“Welch joined General Electric in 1960 as a chemical engineer.
At 37 years old, he was GE’s youngest vice president in 1972.
He was CEO of GE from 1981 to 2001. During his tenure at the helm,
GE’s total market cap soared from $14 billion to $410 billion.
In 1999, Fortune named him “Manager of the Century.”

Welch credited much of his success at GE to some utterly basic management principles that he learned from Peter Drucker, the 20th century’s most widely cited and respected management guru. Speaking with Drucker during meetings we had from about 1997 to 2001 offered a powerful view into what made Welch so effective as a leader…”

https://www.inc.com/thomas-koulopoulos/jack-welch-ceo-general-electric-business-leadership-management-lessons.html?cid=search

Leadership in a Crisis: Responding to
Coronavirus and Future Challenges

During a crisis, which is ruled by unfamiliarity and uncertainty, effective responses are largely improvised. They might span a wide range of actions: not just temporary moves (for example, instituting work-from-home policies) but also adjustments to ongoing business practices (such as the adoption of new tools to aid collaboration), which can be beneficial to maintain even after the crisis has passed.

What leaders need during a crisis is not a predefined response plan but behaviors and mindsets that will prevent them from overreacting to yesterday’s developments and help them look ahead. In this article, we explore five such behaviors and accompanying mindsets that can help leaders navigate the coronavirus pandemic and future crises…”

https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/leadership-in-a-crisis-responding-to-the-coronavirus-outbreak-and-future-challenges

Here are a few additional thoughts to help you convert today’s content into directed action:

  1. Share the HBR article on Grief with your leadership team, then make time to talk about it together. What are each of you feeling? What are your employees feeling? How can you become a better listener to allow those around you to process their emotions?
  2. Where are you sugarcoating the “brutal truth” right now? Who is best positioned to help you see what you are missing? Ask for their help as you strive to embrace The Stockdale Paradox!
  3. Looking forward strategically, engage your leadership team to identify three areas in your business where you must develop additional opportunities (options) over time.

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