Most leaders are frequently tempted to assert control over all aspects of life. It’s human. We want to defend against our own vulnerability in a world largely out of our control. Of course, we aren’t completely powerless. We do control how we react to our environment, i.e. the current pandemic, people’s reactions to us, etc. We can decide to react thoughtfully to the many uncontrollable events that come our way.
But, for most of us, this isn’t easy. The need for control is almost instinctual, rooted in primitive needs for safety. Further, indulging the fallacy that we can (or should) control life is dangerous. True safety, if there is such a thing, comes from accepting that life is more of a crap shoot than an algorithm.
Take a moment to consider your life. What percentage of your life is really under your control? I have no statistic to quote but qualitatively, on a macro-level, the answer is very little. We can engage in good habits, treat others respectfully, follow our values, and create well-considered, intelligent plans. However, the world (people, places, and things) will do whatever it wants. Consider this quote from Eisenhower:
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
And this one by former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson:
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Lots of businesses are getting “punched in the mouth” right now. The Covid-19 crisis has created a degree of uncertainty most of us have never experienced. Continuous, comprehensive uncertainty is stressful; it demands that we abandon any notion that we can control events through sheer power of will. The game is really about being adaptive and responding with agility and creativity.
Being adaptive, especially under pressure, requires you to be in touch with yourself and the world around you. This situational awareness helps you avoid impulsive reactions and judgements that arise from uncomfortable feelings (fear, anxiety, anger, frustration). It’s human to dislike these feelings and impulsively react to quell (control) them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work and often makes matters worse. Consider the damage done by micromanagement and sending that toxic e-mail.
The old adage “just roll with it” actually makes sense. It doesn’t imply letting life “roll over you”; rather, it challenges you to accept and adapt to REALITY. Nothing is more powerful than fully accepting life on life’s terms. This is what people mean when they say “just deal with it!”
How can you prepare yourself—practically—to lead in this unpredictable world? Each morning, take a moment to review your calendar. Consider the day’s potentially challenging meetings and/or interactions. What curveballs or brutal facts might you face and what possible opportunities can you expect? How do you intend to stay focused on what matters most regardless of the pressures of the moment?
Now, “run the movie” in your head. Are you being controlling or adaptive? Are you remaining calm and composed? Are you pausing when tensions are high? Are you asking thoughtful questions rather than making reactive declarations? Are your followers experiencing a balanced leader whose feet are on the ground?
Control in this respect comes from demonstrating Detached Calm–regardless of what the world throws at you. Detached Calm allows you to separate yourself from situational emotions and keep a cool head, especially when the “bullets are flying.” Leaders who are unable or unwilling to restrain these toxic impulses often react their way out of a job.
It pays to remember these simple truths:
- You are not in control of everything in life. If you think you are you are (or should be) you are deluding yourself and heading for trouble. You only control how you react to life.
- Being in touch with your emotional state as you begin each day allows you to react to challenging situations with Detached Calm rather than impulsively.
- Planning is essential not because things will go as planned but because planning improves your ability to adapt effectively when they don’t.
- Judging, micromanaging, sarcasm, being dismissive, and other nasty reactions are signs that you not dealing with REALITY. These attempts to assert control over life and quell your insecurities only makes matters worse.
Finally, given these difficult times, I want to close with some words from Thomas Paine:
“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”