Catalyst: Leading through the I of the storm

Mark is a leader, and like many of the leaders that we work with, his role is a challenging one. He leads a complex team, in an industry that's in flux; there's no stable future in sight. Mark's team is spread across the world, so he manages his people virtually, and each member of the team has different experience and different expectations. Communication is challenging.

Can you relate to Mark's situation?

Our Lead Consultant Larry Shulman discovered Mark in an article by Sheila Ramsey and Barbara Schaetti of; Mark is the case study the authors use to explore a specific set of strategies for responding to the complex situations that often arise in leadership roles.

The challenge

The case study is fascinating. Mark recounts a recent incident that he's found particularly challenging, and it's a very interesting exercise to think about how you would respond yourself in the same situation.

 Photo © Mark Byzewski, Flickr CC

Photo © Mark Byzewski, Flickr CC

Here's the scene: It's Mark's annual review with his new manager. She kicks off by praising him for his great performance on the deliverables his team are measured on.

But Mark describes how the atmosphere shifts suddenly when he's then given some totally unexpected and conflicting feedback:

“If I had one thing to complain about, it’s that you don’t communicate enough with me.”
She then tells me that there is to be another reorganization, and that she is thinking about promoting someone else into a position for which she knows I, and many of my colleagues, think I am better qualified.
She says she needs somebody in the position who will communicate well with her, and that she wants to give me time to improve on this before she makes her final decision.”

Put yourself in Mark's shoes. What would your reaction be in this situation? Angry? Apologetic? Hurt?

Would you immediately start composing your 'defence' – considering all the ways you had exceeded expectations? Cast yourself as the victim of circumstance? Or is your natural reaction one of 'offence' – would your mind leap to critical thoughts about the person leading the review, and their competence?

How would you respond?

In the article, Ramsey and Schaetti offer six tangible steps to take in a scenario like this. All of them are based on the principles of mindfulness: observing your reaction in the present moment, and shifting into a reflective, focused mindset, rather than being ruled by emotion.

1. Attending to Judgment: "Examine your judgments, both positive and negative"

2. Attending to Emotion: "Rather than engage or suppress your emotion, move into the neutral perspective of being a witness, and observe yourself."

3. Attending to Physical Sensation: "Distinguish the knot in your shoulder, twist in your gut, expansion in your heart."

4. Cultivating Stillness: "Quiet your mind. Disentangle internal experience from external circumstance."

5. Engaging Ambiguity: "Become comfortable with the sense of not knowing what to do. Allow possibilities to arise."

6. Aligning with Vision: "Commit to being an expression of your highest and best. Make choices that support you living in alignment with that vision."


Take a look at the fifth point – engaging ambiguity; it's an option that's so often overlooked.

When we're used to making decisions all day long, there's power, sometimes, in resting for a while in the space of 'not knowing'. What if the action that seems 'obvious' or 'natural', inevitable even, wasn't an option?

Learning to pause and allow the possibility for other opportunities can be a powerful way of addressing challenges like this one.

In Mark's case, he might consider that he doesn't necessarily know what his manager means. Perhaps she really does want him to get the role, and is offering him the opportunity for some development? Maybe the more senior role isn't one he actually wants in the first place? There are infinite possible interpretations of every nuance of this situation.

Assuming he knows exactly what's going on might close down the possibility of a positive outcome.

Read the full article here.

Over to you

Do you like these 6 steps, or would you take a different approach to this situation? Is ambiguity and not-knowing something that you allow yourself to feel as a leader, or is your perspective that decisive action is always the most powerful response? Come over to twitter, let us know.

Need support?

Engaging ambiguity may not be the norm for you, or more likely, for your company culture. But it may well be one of the leadership behaviours that allows your organisation to beat its strategic goals. In which case, your corporate culture might need an intentional redesign. Explore some of the options we've come up with over on this page, and find out if our support for your organisation would set in motion your perfect storm for success.