Today’s organizations are finding themselves in chaos more often. Layoffs, poor economic conditions, and structural changes are causing leaders to become caught up in confusion, too. But if you follow a few guidelines and make some changes to your style, you can lead the organization through the chaos.
One of the first things to remember in unclear situations is that you must continue to think proactively and be proactive. What do you do in normal times? You think about the organization, where it needs to go, what’s going to get it there, and what issues could be obstacles. Why think any differently during times of chaos? You still have to lead the organization according to its vision and goals, but the issues may be different. When conditions start to “head south”, keep your head and think about how the issues have changed. What are the new obstacles? How can the organization react in its new condition? Your attention will be pulled in a thousand different directions, but take some time each day or week to think about how to move forward.
Here’s the “but” to the proactive thinking. You must learn to react. Leaders sometimes look at “reaction” as a dirty word, or something that you don’t want to do because it’s not “proactive”. But let’s face it, in chaotic environments, change is truly the only thing that is constant. And as things change, you must be willing and able to react. But reaction becomes “bad” when it is not a thoughtful reaction – and this is the difference between leaders and non-leaders. When you react, get the facts about the situation first. Today, media attention on bad news is regular and loud, so don’t be swayed by panic. Know what the possible outcomes of change or bad news will be; make a list if you have to. Make decisions on how the organization will handle things and move on. But be prepared to live with the outcomes of your decisions. When you look at it this way, a reaction does not have to be a “knee-jerk”.
Third, continue championing change and adapting to it. What’s more, don’t play “gloom and doom” when the news truly is bad. Find a way to show how the organization can benefit in the face of negative change. But remember that leaders must be the first ones to adapt and to change. The leader must show the way. If budgets are cut, be the first one to react to it and explain how. If associates are not getting a bonus, step up to the plate and include yourself in that group. When you adapt to new conditions, look hard for benefits, and show the organization that you champion change, your leadership goes a long way. This is truly a time to show that you won’t be asking the organization to do anything you’re not going to do yourself.
The fourth part of leading in chaos is another “but”. Don’t forget to manage. Leaders must know the difference between leadership and management – and when to employ each. In chaotic times, you may be called on to manage functions or decisions, especially if staffs and budgets are shrinking. Make tough decisions, as we discussed earlier, and execute the changes that must occur in order to keep the organization going. And don’t forget to provide direction in those cloudy situations. As things change, you may find that it’s necessary to manage disagreement and negotiate consensus in order to maintain forward movement. If you notice that managers are becoming afraid to act, step in to help them.
Finally, don’t forget to lead. This sounds simple, but if you’re carried away by the chaos then you’ll forget those qualities and actions you must take every day as a leader. Continue to motivate people, create an environment of teamwork, build relationships both inside and outside the organization, influence people, drive for the results you need to achieve and above all else, act with integrity. Your leadership must continue, even through the hardest times. When people in the organization see this, they’ll focus on it and work with you to ride out the chaos. With that promise, you can move on once things have calmed down.
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