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Grounded Leadership in Volatile Times

Written by Alison Freer, Director of Consulting, Learning & Digital Transformation at durhamlane

“The landing was very dynamic” said British astronaut Tim Peake of his return to earth in a Soyuz capsule, that landed charred and on its side in a barren Kazakhstan field last week. Yet this violent journey was all part of the European Space Agency’s plan, and the mission was heralded an overwhelming success.

After a week of seismic events on European ground, UK leaders may now be asking, what is our mission, and how on earth do we plan to land successfully from what is likely to be a very dynamic ride? In recent years, psychologists, neuroscientists and behavioural economists have been looking closely at what makes for successful leadership in turbulent times. In the post-Brexit European landscape, leaders will need to stay grounded in order to survive and thrive the very bumpy journey ahead. Here are some useful insights for leaders to bear in mind in the days, weeks and months ahead.

  1. Plan for A, B and C: When traditional battle strategies failed to be effective in the Middle Eastern wars of the past two decades, military leaders realised they needed a new approach. ‘VUCA’ is the term they came up with. (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). This requires courage to look at many potential scenarios and outcomes, no matter how unsavoury or unwanted they may be. The most effective leaders engage their teams to look rationally and carefully at their less-preferred future scenarios to increase readiness, agility and capacity to respond to rapidly changing external conditions. Many leaders planned ‘Brexit statements’, and it meant they had responsibly analysed and planned for a range of options, whichever outcome they voted for.
  2. Use ‘Deliberate Thinking’: When we succumb to our fight, flight or freezereactions to sudden and panicked change, it’s easy to react in haste, using what Dr Steve Peters calls our ‘chimp brain’. Leaders who are successful in VUCA environments deploy ‘deliberate’ thinking when the pressure is on. They use slow and rational thinking to analyse, review, research and consult, before they take action or declare their position. If you have ever witnessed experts operating in high stakes environments like defence, medicine, or emergency response, you will see deliberate thinking in action. They combine carefully planned response processes with deep expertise, and high communication to remain unflappable.
  3. Stay Engaged: Isolation is dangerous in times of crisis. Grounded leaders deliberately stay close to others. They encourage discussion, high communication, in person and via virtual channels. They invest effort in emotional and social engagement with their teams, and they listen deeply, with open minds. The insights, analysis and expertise that may be crucial to discovering a winning strategy, could reside in someone who sits the outer-reaches of the social or team network.
  4. Be Mindful: Grounded leaders are mindful to invest in their own wellbeing, even when time is short and demands on their input are high. Mindfulness can come in well-practiced deep breathing, short meditation breaks, 15-30 minute bursts of structured reflective writing and physical exercise. In prioritising their own wellbeing, mindful leaders model to others the importance of self-care and care for others when external pressures are high.

Exceptional leadership often emerges from unusual sources. Look first within yourself, and then to those around you. The leadership you need to enable your organisation to thrive in uncertain times may be closer than you may think.

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Alison Freer is a Leadership Coach, Consultant and Associate Partner at durhamlane.

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