Learning to stay the course during turbulent times

by Jo Owen / 1/9/2018 12:26:12 PM

If you are lucky, you will never experience a personal or professional setback. Unfortunately, they are often a part of life in project management and you have to hope that you are lucky enough to not experience any. Hoping to get lucky is not an ideal project management tool though, because hope is not a method and luck is not a strategy.

After years of research I have come up with eight crucial steps which the best type of leaders take when they are faced with real adversity:

1 Take control.

A paradox emerges here: the less things seem to be in control, the easier it is to take control over what is left. When we are in full control, we often face a surfeit of opportunities: do we invest in China or India or our home market, in new products or extending existing products?

Making decisions is hard: it is not clear what is best when you can choose from 20 options. When everything is grim, there are often very few options. This is when weaker leaders start to feel powerless. But if there is only one thing you can do, that is what you must do: do not worry about the things you cannot control.

Control your own feelings.

The CEO of a headhunting firm talks about ‘wearing the mask of leadership’. He learned that getting angry is pointless. If you are angry or upset, your little cloud of gloom will spread like a major depression across the rest of the office.

If you remain positive, you have a chance that your team will remain positive: moods are infectious, especially the leader’s mood. Separate the event from your reaction: just because an event is bad, it does not mean you are required to be angry or upset.

Stay positive. Research with American prisoners of war found that those who survived had a strong ‘will to prevail’. This finding echoed that of Victor Frankl who survived the concentration camps and did research on others who survived.

Believe that you can find a way through and that adversity is your defining moment where you will grow and learn. Look back at your own career. What have been the times you remember most and grew the most, when you had the chance to shine and make a difference?

Was it when you were working in easy street, or when your back was against the wall and you had to fight your way out? To paraphrase Dickens, the worst of times are often the best of times, even if only in retrospect.

Gain perspective.

This is a staple of the positive psychology movement, and it works. It is about counting your blessings not just looking at problems. I learned this after a tough research trip in the bush. I returned to civilization: a hotel with a corrugated iron roof and a barbed wire fence. I fell asleep in a filthy bed.

The next morning I woke up to two miracle in two minutes: first, I turned a tap and cold running water came out. I did not have to walk three kilometers to collect water from a muddy river.

I then turned another tap and warm water came out: I did not need to collect firewood and warm the water myself. Waking up to two miracles every day makes every day a great day: how many daily miracles do you enjoy every day?

Draw on experience.

You have two sources of experience to draw on: your own and the experiences of others. Drawing on experience helps to build perspective, but it also should give you some hints about what will work and what will not work in your current situation.

I have interviewed hundreds of leaders, and they all talk about various disasters with great energy: this was their experience bank that they drew on in challenging times. Ask yourself three simple questions:

  • Where have I met something like this before: what worked and what did not work?
  • Have I seen other people deal with this before, successfully or otherwise? What can I learn from that?
  • What would my mentor/role model do in this situation?

Use humour.

One of the core values of the Royal Marine Commandos is about dealing with extreme adversity. The value is not about survival, grit or perseverance: it is “humour in the face of adversity” which is the cue for endless and unprintable bad jokes, which have a point: humour lets you surf adversity. Never lose your sense of humour.

At Teach First, which I co-founded, we created the Cock-Up Club: we would invite eminent business people to talk about their business, but instead of their normal propaganda we asked them to talk about the biggest cock-up they were responsible for in their career.

We soon discovered that behind every glittering career there are fantastic disasters. The road to success is built on potholes of disaster, and you cannot avoid them all.

7    Be adaptable.

Mike Tyson, the world heavyweight boxing champion for many years, said: ‘Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.’ The best leaders are totally fixed about their end goal, but completely flexible about how they get there. You cannot sail straight into the wind: you have to tack and gybe to make any progress

8    Get help.

Lone heroes may save the world, frequently, in the movies. Back in the real world, lone heroes become dead heroes fast. Do not carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Reach out for help and advice. As a coach I see clients struggling with apparently impossible burdens. They then talk for a while and they discover the answer: I do not have a magic box full of instant solutions. Instead, just the act of talking helps clients to develop perspective, find alternatives and create options. And, somewhere, there is a solution to be found: that ‘somewhere’ is normally already in your head.

There is a final paradox about resilience. Resilience does not come from success: it comes from setbacks. The more setbacks we have, the better we become at coping with them. Setbacks are the moments of truth when followers step back and leaders step up: they are your moment to shine and to make a difference.

To find out more about this topic, buy a copy of The Mindset of Success: Accelerate Your Career from Good Manager to Great Leader, by Jo Owen. The book will help you to unlock your true potential and accelerate your career by acquiring the seven key mindsets that lead to leadership success.

Jo Owen is a best-selling and multi-award winning leadership author, keynote speaker and social entrepreneur. He is a founder of eight charities, including the UK's largest graduate recruiter Teach First. His books The Mindset of Success, The Leadership Skills Handbook and Management Stripped Bare, all published by Kogan Page, have been translated into eight different languages.

This article includes an extract from The Mindset of Success by Jo Owen ©2017 and has been reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

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