Five questions for leaders in uncertain times
As the slow-motion train wreck of Brexit unfolds, I try to maintain empathy for our political leaders as they face an unenviable task, struggling to meet the conflicting needs of their own parties, the broader electorate, and the country as a whole. Yet my empathy is tempered by despair at the abject lack of mature leadership capability on display. I know that the parliamentary system is designed to be adversarial, and like any system this will drive individual’s behaviour. But there are still aspects of our leaders’ (and leaders in waiting) behaviour that I find troubling and upsetting.
Rather than simply blame our politicians, let me pose five questions I can ask myself – and invite you to also ask yourself in relation to your leadership in these uncertain times:
Am I providing direction for the long term?
The human mind is wired for survival NOW and is notoriously poor at taking a long-term view. If I can engage in thought experiments that deliberately shift the time perspectives of my issue, I can open up new possibilities and offer fresh direction.
Am I understanding and appreciating the merit in ideas I disagree with?
It’s all too easy to polarise and see the ‘other side’ as the villains who are totally and always wrong. This makes me feel better because if they are the villains, I must be the hero. But we don’t live in a black and white world, and if I can look without fear I will recognise that any position has some merit, no matter how minor.
Am I asking myself ‘how might I be wrong?’
Once I take a public stance my identity and self-esteem start to become enmeshed. So even if the facts say otherwise, cognitive dissonance means I will find it impossible to admit I’m wrong. I will become more and more stubborn in my beliefs because to change my mind will feel like a mortal blow to my reputation – unless I develop the humility to look for and acknowledge the flaws in my own thinking.
Am I considering people, not just positions?
Under stress I will dehumanise and lose empathy for other people. They become barriers or enablers in relation to my narrow goal. Just like me, I need to remember they have hopes and fears too.
Am I having my emotions – or are they having me?
Ambition, fear, pride, anger, desperation, schadenfreude… all real human emotions, felt by leaders and followers alike. If I can name and acknowledge my emotions, no matter how ‘bad’ or unworthy, I can start to have emotions rather than being driven by them. Greater clarity and even optimism can follow.
I hope these questions are helpfully provocative. We all face the challenge of staying self-aware amidst today’s urgency and confusion, and by doing so we can create the best possible opportunities for our human creativity, ingenuity and wisdom to prevail.
If you’d value applying these sorts of questions to your leadership challenges, get in touch.
Jonathan Males and the P1 team.