Leadership in Chaos

“What’s most important for a business is what people do when they don’t know what to do.”

This quote by James Wright in an FT article has stuck with me. It was expressed in the context of what modern MBAs offer and whether or not they actually teach the skills that business wants from its future leaders.

It’s influenced my thinking on what a leader is: that leaders are those who behave a certain way when things are uncertain. True leaders don’t roll over and give up in tough times – they keep going in a way that inspires the team around them. There’s something about a leader’s personality that empowers them with conviction and direction in uncertainty and chaos. There seems to be a fair amount of uncertainty around at the moment, even for today’s times.

I’ve recently finished reading Leadership 101 (by John Maxwell), where it became clear to me that Leadership isn’t what you do, it’s who you are. Leaders have well developed values and belief systems that guide their actions – in a sense their values and beliefs are a compass against which they make their decisions in times of uncertainty and chaos.

By contrast, people who don’t have well-formed and established values and beliefs react to uncertainty in different ways each time there is a crisis, depending on what the strongest influence on their thinking is at the time. Leaders with clearly defined beliefs and values – leaders with character – behave consistently whether in day-to-day work, or in crisis, creating a sense of consistency and reliability that their teams learn to trust.

Competence, connectivity and character are all needed to obtain the trust of a team that is so vital to success. The character of a leader is the part that I haven’t seen often expressed, yet it’s key because people will forgive a genuine mistake, but they’re unlikely to forgive a lapse in character.

Good to Great talks about the characteristics of leaders who take their teams to sustained greatness.  These leaders value the team’s success before their own personal glory, and value excellence in themselves and the team around them.  Maintaining that balance of humility and will is only possible on a consistent basis if it comes from someone’s core values and beliefs.

To me, a strong character is someone with well-developed values and beliefs. Values, beliefs and character go hand-in-hand, and can’t be bought or faked. In times of uncertainty and chaos, a leader’s decisions and actions are determined by their values and beliefs – it is simply who they are. It forms a compass for decision making in times of uncertainty, allowing them to keep moving forward when others are running around in circles looking for direction.

Going back to the original quote, my view is that in times of uncertainty, leaders keep moving with certainty and confidence in the direction prescribed by their values and beliefs (which is what they were doing in the first place anyway), creating stability around themselves. Now me being me, I thoroughly enjoy challenging the Status Quo (why do it the way everyone else does, when you can have fun doing it another way?), and one of my values hinges around the concept of “work hard, play hard”, where having a balance in life is part of a recipe for success. In my day to day work, and even in crisis, I’ve often encouraged colleagues to spend less time doing overtime for work, and to allow themselves time to enjoy their own personal activities.  Part of my motivation is that I can’t stand by and condone a culture where people are abused as resources, rather than recognised as individuals with hopes, dreams and home lives. The other part is a little less altruistic – I genuinely believe that each of us is more effective in our work when we’ve had time to play.

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