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April 15, 2012

A leader’s compass and ballast in turbulent times 

Photo of Coast Guard cutter in surf.

Photo by Mike Baird, Creative Commons

It’s easy for leaders to lose their way in a world of unprecedented turbulence. It’s not that things are that much tougher—economies have been more depressed, wars more devastating, poverty more intractable, disease more widespread. But never have events and circumstances shifted so quickly, so fundamentally, or so unpredictably. One day the Berlin Wall is standing, the next it’s gone. One day apartheid is the law of the land in South Africa, the next it’s gone. One day the Twin Towers are standing, the next they’re gone. One day we’re sitting on top of a growing economy, the next it’s gone. And so the list goes on, each item swept away by underlying structural changes very few saw or predicted.

Turbulence of this kind poses two fundamental challenges for leaders.

  • First, they must be able to chart a coherent course through uncertainty, constantly adapting, even changing direction as conditions shift.
  • Second, they must be able to motivate others to follow them into that uncertainty and to learn well and quickly from each other as things change.

To master these two challenges, leaders need both a compass and some ballast. Both are critical; neither is dispensable. A leader’s compass is his mission. With a highly developed mission, you can plot a clear course through the fog of uncertainty, orienting yourself relative to your North Star as conditions on the ground shift. A mission is more specific than a vision, more general than a strategic plan—allowing you to revise plans while staying on your vision’s course. A good mission keeps you focused on whom you’re going after, with what capabilities in hand and what ends in mind. Most leaders spend a good deal of time thinking about these questions and are wise to do so.

A leader gets his ballast from relationships. Strong relationships create a modicum of stability in the midst of turbulence, not because they provide solace or support—although the best ones do—but because they allow you to learn quickly, to sense and adapt to even the most subtle shifts. That learning, sensing, and adapting helps you avoid, or at least prepare for, more cataclysmic changes. When your relationships are strong, people tell you what you need to know. More important, they tell each other, so they can help each other reduce the uncertainty around them or give each other the courage needed to make the most of it, as comrades-in-arms do in times of war.

It’s surely what Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill did during World War II. According to Jon Meacham who wrote of their “epic friendship” in Winston and Franklin: “They always kept the mission—and their relationship—in mind.”

We all would do well to follow their example in our own turbulent times.

One Response to “A leader’s compass and ballast in turbulent times”

  1. Tim Nichols on April 18th, 2012 at 10:58 am :

    Strong relationships are an essential, but often forgotten key to success when the chips are down. Do we have people around us on whom we can rely on in tough times? Beyond simply being strong, what are the qualities of the relationships that serve leaders well in uncertain times? Leaders are often tempted to surround themselves with people adept at easing anxiety and fear by creating an illusion of certainty – often by avoiding needed candor, providing a comforting reflection of a common point of view, and shutting out troubling naysayers. Wise leaders rely on partners tolerant of the uncomfortable reality that we often don’t have the “right” answer, vocal about distinctly divergent points of view, and respectful of those people whom are not a part of the inner circle.

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