Any period when things are uncertain is an excellent time to focus all of your attention and energies on being creatively responsive to all of the unpredictable events that lie ahead. We all experience negativity–the basic aggression of wanting things to be different than they are. We cling, we defend, we attack, and throughout there is a sense of one’s own wretchedness, and so we blame the world for our pain. This is negativity. We experience it as terribly unpleasant, foul-smelling, something we want to get rid of. But if we look into it more deeply, it has a very juicy smell and is very alive. Negativity is not bad per se, but something living and precise, connected with reality.
Negativity breeds tension, friction, gossip, discontentment, but it is also very accurate, deliberate and profound. Unfortunately, the heavy-handed interpretations and judgments we lay on these experiences obscure this fact. These interpretations are negative negativity, watching ourselves being negative and then deciding that the negativity is justified in being there. This negativity seems good-natured, with all sorts of good qualities in it, so we pat its back, guard it and justify it. Or, if we are blamed or attacked by others, we interpret their negativity as being good for us. In either case, the watcher, by commenting, interpreting and judging, is camouflaging and hardening the basic negativity.
The basic honesty and simplicity of negativity can be creative in the community as well as in personal relationships. Basic negativity is very revealing sharp and accurate. If we leave it as basic negativity rather than overlaying it with conceptualizations, then we see the nature of its intelligence. Negativity breeds a great deal of energy, which clearly seen becomes intelligence. When we leave the energies as they are with their natural qualities, they are living rather than conceptualized. They strengthen our daily lives. As President John F. Kennedy pointed out, “When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters — one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” What Kennedy didn’t point out is that the two concepts are proportional; the greater the danger, the greater the opportunity.
If you can keep your wits about you when everyone else is squawking like chicken little, you’ll inevitably end up on top. As a former mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel famously said: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste…it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” You may think that your role as a leader has little to do with how that affects the people who work with and for you. If that’s the case, then I’ll humbly say that you’re defining leadership in the wrong way. Your role as a leader is not to sugarcoat or sidestep the truth. It’s also not to predict the future. Instead, your role is to provide a protected space for those you are leading to feeling confident that they will be cared for and best protected from the implications of uncertainty.
So, how do you do that? It’s all about where you put your attention…
Energy follows attention. You must pay attention to where you put your focus:
#1 Focus on client relationships and close and near family and team members
In uncertain times, people become frightened about the viability of their “commodities” — the things they sell and the jobs they hold. A more strategic response here is to disregard your own commodity and focus on deepening the power and possibility of all your relationships — with family, friends, team members, suppliers, clients, customers, and prospects. Every time you strengthen a relationship, the viability of your commodity will increase.
#2 Focus on creating value.
Most people don’t like being sold at the best of times. When the future is less certain, they turn off, hang up, and slam shut. But what people want at all times is value creation — that is, solutions that help them eliminate their dangers, capture their opportunities, and reinforce their strengths. When you focus on providing these three solutions, the sales will naturally follow. Don’t wait until your customers call you. Proactively contact your existing customers, ask them how they’re coping, and offer to do what you can to help them out. Helping out before you’re asked will win your long-term customer loyalty.
#3 Focus on your opportunities.
Things you had and may have taken for granted sometimes disappear. Some people never get over this. They keep trying to replay their old games. A better strategy is to start an entirely new game — using new ideas, new energies, new tools, and new resources. As the world changes, opportunities suddenly become available to achieve far more than you ever did in the past. With adversity you summon courage, character, and new capability. You’ll never run out of resourceful thinking and fast responses that help you learn your way out of any problem or challenge. Remember, what is IN the way, IS the way. Transforming obstacles into action is the essence of executive toughness and learning to resilient. Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.During difficult times, your competitors will probably hunker down, cut costs and try to wait the crisis out. Fair enough, but then they’re taking a huge risk that they’ll be caught short when the crisis is over. Do the opposite. Assume that there will eventually be pent-up demand and position yourself to take advantage of it. Invest in new manufacturing capability and develop new product concepts. That way, when conditions improve you’ll be ready to rock while your competitors will be struggling to ramp back up.
#4 Focus on what you can do, what is available, and small progress.
Because of some changes, things may not be as easy as they once were. New difficulties can either defeat you or reveal new strengths. Your body’s muscles always get stronger from working against resistance. The same is true for the “muscles” in your mind, your spirit, and your character. Treat this whole period of challenge as a time when you can make your greatest progress as a human being. Take small steps that you can do and concentrate on what is available to you, to be constructive and creative. The “future” is an abstraction. It doesn’t exist except as an idea. The only future that has any reality is the one that you continually create for yourself through each day’s contributions, achievements, and results. This is an excellent time to ignore all those experts who never saw the present circumstances coming. Focus on what you can do over the course of each 24 hours, and you’ll be the only expert on the future you’ll ever need. Start close in, take the second step, like ice climbing, every time you throw the pick it’s a two-way street—works or doesn’t work, that tells you what to do next. Action = clarity.
#5 Focus on outcome, not your identity.
Many people define themselves by external circumstances. When these abruptly or unexpectedly change, they don’t know who they are, so they keep trying to be who they used to be. From now on, take your cues from the inside — from your dreams, ideals, values, and operating principles and stay external open to what is emerging. You know the path by walking. These needs never change, regardless of the circumstances. Take advantage of external confusion to become self-directed, self-managed, and self-motivated. In a VUCA world volatility yields vision, uncertainty yields understanding, complexity yields clarity, and ambiguity yields agility. Get a good nights sleep tonight to be rested for the challenges tomorrow with the fresh mind.
#6 Focus on Responses, not Reactions.
When things are going well, many people think they are actually in control of events. That’s why they feel so defeated and depressed when things turn bad. They think they’ve lost some fundamental ability, leading to powerlessness and worthlessness. The most consistently successful people in the world know they can’t control events — but continually work toward greater control over their creative responses to events. A strategic response is to take advantage of every resource that is immediately available in order to achieve as many small results and make as much daily progress as possible. Work with every resource and opportunity at hand, and your confidence will continually grow.Scenario-based planning is one of the least-often used tools, and even when it is used it’s rarely used correctly. SBP is an exercise in which you identify a variety of threat or opportunity scenarios and then play each one out. The intent of SBP is not to predict the future; it’s not even to identify all possible futures. Instead, the most valuable part of SBP is that it develops an organizational muscle that inspires confidence in dealing with uncertainty. There are myriad ways to conduct SBP, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that you need to clearly define the dimensions of the challenge. Then identify at least six ways that each dimension can manifest itself. In other words, if you run a coffee shop one dimension will be the loss of adequate inventory. But that can likely be broken down into the type of inventory (coffee/tea/milk/alternative drinks), the geography of the inventory (African/Latin American/domestic), the storage of the inventory (in-store/brewery/ warehouse). So, visually, your dimension (column) is Inventory and your categories (rows) are Type, Geography, and Storage. (A full SBP matrix should have about eight columns and six rows.) Here’s where SBP gets interesting. Once you have built a full matrix of the problem dimensions and ways each dimension manifests itself, create randomized scenarios that cut across the matrix by picking one cell at random from each column. At first, these random combinations will seem nonsensical, but the point here is to build a capability to deal with even the most ridiculous outlier scenarios. I’ve seen this work in virtually every industry, from cybersecurity and insurance to automotive and cable TV. What I’ve observed firsthand over decades of teaching SBP is that organizations that do SBP regularly are able to deal with uncertainty much better. They think more creatively, pivot faster, and instill confidence in their people. Most important, they provide a way to take back some degree of control and confidence in what is usually a situation where people feel they’ve been robbed of both.
#7 Focus on what you already have that you’re grateful for.
When times get tough, everyone has to make a fundamental decision: to complain or to be grateful. Creators don’t complain, they create anyway. In an environment where negative sentiment is rampant, the consequences of this decision are much greater. Complaining only attracts negative thoughts and people. Gratitude, on the other hand, creates the opportunity for the best thinking, actions, and results to emerge. Focus on everything that you are grateful for, communicate this, and open yourself each day to the best possible consequences.
Quit worrying – it doesn’t help anything. Instead, get resourceful, start creating from where you are right now!
Read more of my thoughts in my book, Stay Longer Listen Deeper, available on Kindle.