by Anne Collier

The pandemic has and is catalyzing ill-defined multi-dimensional cultural changes. These changes can seem more like a paradigm shift than a natural evolution or the normal vagaries of life. As the “new normal” continues to form and emerge from the unknowable, many are nervous. We question whether the ground we’re standing on is solid. It’s not just that leaders must lead in the face of the unknowable, it’s that they must lead team members and staff who themselves struggle with the very same shifting ground. Leaders, you are not leading the same people you led in 2019. Not really.

“Unknowable” is different than unknown. Unknown implies that with hard work and analysis, we have the capacity to map the territory, or at the very least can discern the contours of the landscape. Unknowable, as used here, means that the landscape is inchoate – mountains are still erupting, and streams are still finding their path. The current state of unknowability means that “figuring it out” in the usual way isn’t always going to be successful.

The challenge for any leader is to chart a path into unknowable territory that both secures the future and takes care of the present. Given that actions in the present create the future, choices that take care of the present also secure the future. Further, leaders do better by making choices that are based in their best shot at objective discernment of reality. Thus, thinking objectively about the landscape, team members, and especially one’s own thinking is a critical capacity for navigating the unknowable. The latter – metacognition, sensing one’s own thinking – is essential to objectively assessing everything else. Without the capacity to discern whether one’s own thinking is objective or fear driven, a person can’t trust their judgment. Further, fear-driven thinking has the paradoxical consequence of bringing about the very thing the person fears. The simple example of an insomniac trying to fall asleep makes the point.

There is so much that is unknowable. Unknowability can shake our confidence while it leaves us unsure that we can correctly identify the nature of the problem we are trying to solve. And yet, we have to make choices based on what we objectively discern. Whether you choose to let this unnerve you, compromising your ability to be effective, depends on the confidence you have in your choices and your sense of self. Those of us who are grounded in objective thinking have a strong sense of self. We don’t kid ourselves. We can trust that our choices are the best possible based on the information available, and not our hopes or views about what is so. If, with the benefit of hindsight, a choice is suboptimal, all there is to do is objectively assess and make new choices.

Power Thinking for a Powerful Leader
It is with my coach’s hat on that I share these five steps to maintain and heighten your objective thinking.

  1. Observe without judgment. Without reacting, adding meaning, or judging as good or bad, observe what occurs. Notice your emotions and thinking – your desire to judge. It is through this keen observing that you heighten your objectivity. For a leader, this practice transforms mindfulness into a superpower.
  2. Know and notice your fears. According to the late David McClellan, who was voted one of America’s top 100 psychologists, we are driven by affiliation, power, and achievement to varying degrees. The “shadow” side of these drivers are fear of rejection, betrayal, and failure, respectively. Rather than avoid, befriend your shadows so that they don’t unconsciously drive poor choices.
  3. Regularly self-assess. There will be times when you wish you had handled a situation differently. Look at these situations as opportunities for growth as a leader. Then move forward, letting go of any frustration, disappointment, or anger.
  4. Be objective about your people. These days, CEOs are confronting more challenges with team members. A team member’s performance may have unacceptably declined, or a pre-existing performance issue may have worsened. Don’t avoid having difficult conversations, ascribing the problem to the pandemic. Instead, view this as an opportunity to productively address a frustration that is hampering your team’s performance.
  5. Objectively assess expectations. These days, everyone is expected to do more with less. This works so long as expectations of people and resources are in line with what is objectively possible.

To lead through unknowability, a leader must sharpen the mind by thinking objectively. You know this or you wouldn’t be where you are. You’ve got this.

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