Now, more than ever, we’re living in a VUCA world – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. Thomas Friedman promotes the idea of 'dynamic stability' – where you only get a sense of stability by moving forward, like the balance you get by pedaling a bike.
The year 2020 began with such optimism. The “zero” years give us a fresh start. 20/20 is how we signify perfect vision. The United States had set a new record for its longest economic expansion, with 126 consecutive months of GDP growth.
Half-way through the year, we’ve gotten far more than we expected. COVID-19. Shelter in Place. #BlackLivesMatter. Along with the minor inconveniences of the predicted invasion of Murder Hornets, a historically fast start to hurricane season, millions of 17-year cicadas emerging from the ground…
In November 1942, Churchill said:
British troops had just pushed Rommel’s forces out of Egypt, 2 ½ years after the start of the campaign in Africa. And VE Day (the end of the war in Europe) wouldn’t arrive for another 2 ½ years, in May 1945.
Today, we are in a liminal phase. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin root, limen, which means “threshold. We feel the ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle of a transition. In this crossing-over period, we’ve just arrived on the threshold; we’ve left one thing behind and have not yet arrived at the new destination. As Churchill so aptly put, we can’t yet see what that destination will look like, let alone when it will arrive…
What’s the best way for a leader to navigate this liminality?
Leaders should cultivate an adaptive mindset. With an adaptive mindset, you enhance your ability to adjust to unexpected or ambiguous situations by actively seeking information and remaining open to new perspectives. It also allows you to act from a place of optimism, while being firmly grounded in reality.1
Why does an adaptive mindset matter?
People who have an adaptive mindset view change as an opportunity, and may even enjoy the challenge of change and creating solutions to navigate change. They’re biased toward exploration and action – moving from ambiguity to clarity. These leaders project positivity and confidence in themselves and their teams, helping to lead those teams successfully through change.
How do you cultivate an adaptive mindset?
First, fully immerse yourself in the new (changed) environment. Meet new people, learn new subjects, and try to see three different angles. What would this look like from an imaginary drone watching the whole ecosystem? What does this look like from the customer’s eyes? What do my employees feel and see? Be present – be both focused on the issue at hand and aware of your surroundings. This is not a “once a day” or “once a week” exercise. On some days, a new environment arrives hourly. Be curious – what’s new in this iteration? What assumption do I need to update?
Second, find the silver linings. Think of the new challenges and uncertainties as though they are heavier weights than you usually lift at the gym. You need to build up your mental muscles to lead through them. With the environment shifting dynamically, daily or hourly, you will get the opportunity to do multiple “reps” to re-focus your mind and attention each day. That will build your presence and self-awareness muscles rapidly.
Silicon Valley Non-Profit Example
The operating model of a non-profit organization I support was based on income from hosting in-person events. With shelter-in-place ordinances, that business model was no longer viable. To keep the community engaged, volunteers offered to host daily virtual coffee gatherings. Within that engaged community we found experts on change, inclusion and resilience. Soon, new virtual events were attracting more participants than the in-person activity. Silver linings?
- The staff made a very quick pivot to adopt new skills like Zoom meeting facilitation.
- Highly sought-after speakers were more easily scheduled virtually — they were home AND they could present without the restriction of travel time.
- The community extended beyond “Silicon Valley,” thus broadening the diversity of the network.
- The new operating model is more robust with both in-person and virtual offerings.
Lastly, the most important place to practice your adaptable mindset muscle: your home. Pay attention to life beyond work and set up some boundaries to hold space for family, hobbies and activity. It’s easy in the home office to forget to take a break or shut your laptop lid for the night.
“Remember too that your time is your one finite resource, and when you say “yes” to one thing you are inevitably saying “no” to another.”
― Andrew S. Grove, High Output Management
We may still be in the liminal, or threshold, phase, but we’ve been living with COVID-19 for several months now. With that, we may be at the “end of the beginning” and can possibly even see ourselves finally stepping across that threshold. That’s a reason to celebrate and have optimism as we continue on our journey of this new decade. What’s your silver lining for today? There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s no “return to normal.” We are on the journey of a century – with more changes to come.
“My destination is no longer a place, but rather a new way of seeing.”
– Marcel Proust
1Calarco, A., &; Gurvis, J. (2014). Adaptability: Responding effectively to change. Greensboro, NC: Center For Creative Leadership.