How To Lead When You Don't Know Where You're Going
As a leader, you are used to seeing your role as setting a direction, creating a vision of the future and leading people towards it. As of today, if you are in Europe, that's the worst possible thing you could try to do. The Brexit decision has plunged us into a period of profound uncertainty, which completely changes the task of the leader. Steve Jobs provides an example of how it's done.
By 1997, Apple was close to bankruptcy, and Jobs was asked to return to save it. His first actions were dramatic. He cut the desktop range down from 15 machines to one, abandoned printers altogether, moved manufacturing to Taiwan and cut out five of six national retailers. So far, this was classic turnaround management, and it stabilised the situation. The next stage, however, was quite different.
A year later, Jobs had a visit from a business school professor, Richard Rumelt. Rumelt pointed out that, although the situation was stable for now, it wasn't sustainable. Where was the plan for the future? Jobs just smiled and said "I am going to wait for the next big thing."
And that, I suggest, is what you do now. You could spend all day listening to predictions about the impact of Brexit, but if you find yourself doing that can I please urge you to get real? The only honest answer to the question of what comes next is "we simply don't know yet." We don't know who is going to be leading the negotiations, or how the EU will react.
This waiting is going to be hard for us. Managers get paid to reduce uncertainty, not tolerate it. We work hard to avoid procrastination, and deprecate it in others. We follow Tom Peters and try to maintain "a bias for action." All good stuff, in normal times. But these are not normal times.
That said, remember that waiting is not the same as inaction. There many things to be doing while you wait for the future to become clearer. What was Jobs doing once he had stabilised Apple and settled down to wait for the next big thing? He was scanning the environment (but scanning for facts, not opinions or predictions). There are things to do, quite possible overdue, that will be a good idea whatever happens. I'll be writing about them in a future post.
The Jobs example is very impressive. He is usually seen as someone with a very clear view of what he wanted, and an absolute determination to drive everyone around him to achieve it. But yet, when the situation demanded it, he could move into a mode of watchful waiting. This is the real test that many of us face. Are you a one-trick pony, good at one thing which happens to have been the route to success recently? Or do you possess the versatility to adapt your behavior to the situation, however unusual?
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