How we set ourselves up for rigidity and frustration
The last several weeks have tested our resilience in so many ways. Hurricanes have devastated cities. Wildfires have taken homes and lives. Our hearts ached with the shooting of Jacob Blake - and with the deaths of protestors who were speaking up. We know that families fray as they send kids back to school. It’s just a lot when we add it all up.
We don’t pretend to have answers to controlling the perfect storm. This is so hard, and our hearts go out to you. (And to ourselves!. We’re with you in this journey and have found our own personal challenges to manage in these times.)
Over the course of this summer, we’ve been studying (and personally grappling) with what it looks like to do more than just survive our way through the weeks and months ahead. We’ve studied agile methods in different industries, listened to thought leaders and personal mentors.
Here’s what we’ve come to realize. The individual actions and mindsets we embrace can actually set us up to be devastated when the next unexpected change comes our way. Life may give us some tough ingredients, but sometimes we write the recipe that invites frustration and overwhelm to take over.
We know that’s a bold statement. We explore below parts of our rigidity recipe we have been unlearning.
We also want to invite you to unlearn with us. In November, we will host a two-part series called Thriving in Uncertainty that goes in-depth on these topics. Together, we will explore a framework for sustaining our leadership in times of change, uncertainty, and overwhelm. We’d love to have you join us.
A Foolproof Recipe for Being Devastated by Change
Step 1: Assume life will be linear and predictable
You know, life before 2020 had its ups and downs, too, but forget about that. Plan very carefully for the future so you seize control of the messiness, and put all the details in place to ensure you can execute your plan perfectly. Here’s the really important part: take it very personally when life goes off script. Get very frustrated at the person or circumstances that threw the monkey wrench in your plans, or presume that if you were a better leader this wouldn’t have occurred.
We can laugh about it when we paint it in such stark reality, but isn’t it true that often we are surprised by the fact that life doesn’t turn out how we expect it? We love this quote by cosmologist Janna Levin: “I used to resent obstacles along the path, thinking, ‘If only that hadn’t happened life would be so good.’ Then I suddenly realized, life is the obstacles. There is no underlying path.”
So if we were to assume that life was going to have unanticipated kinks, how might we make our work less fragile to change?
As we studied teams with agile methodologies, we were struck about where they invested their energy. They had a True North for where they were headed, and they had a rough path for how to get there. But the powerful part was that they worked in shorter sprints based on what they could plan around.
There’s something empowering about anticipating a more dynamic life and questioning our attempts to force work to be straightforward. After all, our assumptions are 100% in our control.
Step 2: Never adjust your meeting cadences or collaboration patterns
Now that you have the year planned out in minute detail, the next thing to do is to stick ways of collaborating that work in more tranquil times. You know - create a lot of complex, infrequent meetings that you spend weeks preparing for. Make sure that you are always in a hub-and-spoke communication pattern that relies on you conveying information back and forth. And layer on lots of long emails, particularly in areas where you need to brainstorm or figure things out together. Above all, when things are evolving quickly, insist as though the way you were sharing and problem solving must still work.
Constantly creating ad hoc ways of working with each other takes a lot of energy. When we navigate an evolving landscape with the same tools that helped us in a different space, we are constantly having to rework and improvise.
When we looked at agile teams, they were incredibly intentional about how they met. They had rhythms for sharing their work after each short sprint, getting feedback from people close to the real work and rigorously aligning on the right work for the next sprint and who would do what. The work was ever-changing, but the rhythms provided a consistent way of adapting to the changes with minimal hassle.
So help your team see that you are going to set up ways of working together, and then pull up and adjust as the situation evolves. It will save you the head space from improvising all the time, but preserve the ability to adjust as the work does.
Step 3: Never let someone in on the ambiguity you face
Make sure others see you as the hero and rely on you for all the answers. Communicate in infrequent but highly definitive ways, and never explain the thinking you are doing behind the scenes. Make sure they spend a lot of energy hurling questions and criticism in your direction, and when something shifts, assume that it’s all up to you to figure out what to do.
How is it we have come to expect too much of ourselves as leaders? Why do we think that others won’t give us credit if we ever have to say “I don’t know yet” or “here’s what I do know and when I’ll know more?”
Our recipe for rigidity leaves others out of the complexity of the impossible decisions you face. They react strongly to imperfection (or last minute changes) when it seems the answers are easy. But we’ve seen people soften and relax when they understand that you get that there is ambiguity and nuance. And odds are, they will remember you’re human and come to agree that the imperfect answer is the best one if you give them the chance.
Another fascinating thing we learned from studying agile teams came in watching how tightly the developers and customer representatives worked together. It was inspiring to see that developers didn’t dream up solutions in isolation, nor did customer representatives create impossible requests that could never be filled. They work hand in hand to adjust and learn from each other. And then when something changes, they can ask each other what is most important.
During these chaotic times, it just isn’t likely that you are able to organically tap into the community members that know your context the most. But if you are intentional to set up ways of listening and talking through several imperfect answers, they can help you create better solutions with less pressure and drama yourself.
Step 4: Get your ego tied up in being right and looking “with it”
It’s really important to have your identity tied up in your “effectiveness” as a leader. After all, people are looking to you for answers and craving a sense of clarity. And you are giving so much of yourself as a leader as you help others. So when people have a question, assume they are saying you are incompetent. Spend precious energy justifying why you are right when other people have worries. And put a lot of stress and anxiety into what people will think of you as a leader and a human.
Let’s face it. Control and approval are elusive things. As much as each of us desperately seeks to make them our reality, we can’t. So when we hitch our leadership to our quest for control and approval, we become hypersensitive to the moments where that is threatened.
What if we were to redefine success for ourselves? What if success was defined just as much by who we are and how we show up in life together? What if we accepted ourselves for trying our level best, brought others in on the trickiness we’re facing, and trusted that people would see and value us for just being human?
We’re sure that you have some sort of special ingredient in your own rigidity recipe. Your individual circumstances may increase the pressure, bring extra volatility, or bring laughable amounts of mishap your way. We feel for you.
And our invitation today is to see where you might be helping to write a recipe that might leave you feeling burned. What if we all got to believe that there is some magic in the months ahead and that we can make our way through it together?
Is there another recipe you can write that will enable you to be more grounded? We can’t wait to remake that story with you. We think it can be epic.
Some Supportive Offerings
Join us to explore how we can cultivate the mindsets and skills to Thriving in Uncertainty.
In a two-part virtual series, explore these skills and more to learn about what it takes to sustain your leadership amidst the chaos of it all.
Program Dates: November 5 and 19
Register by October 23.
Build your antiracism practice in a supportive learning community with White Leaders Working on Antiracism.
This four week series is designed to provide reflection, growth, and planning for leaders working to develop their antiracism practice.
Program Dates: October Tuesday Evenings or Thursday Days (beginning Oct 6 / 8).
Register by September 20
We are looking for an Operations and Marketing Associate to join us.
This part time fall role will bring the marketing, event management, operations, and customer support as we join in virtual community over the coming months.
From leaders we admire:
An amazing opportunity to pour into the healing and rejuvenation of Black leaders
“Healing justice means that we begin to value care, emotional labor and resilience, not as add-ons but as central components of sustainability that restore us to life.”
Prentis Hemphill, Director of Healing Justice at Black Lives Matter
Through their "A Year of Rest" campaign, Getaway will offer a total of 365 nights of rest to Black people working for change, and those fighting for the Black community in combating racism. If you know a Black teacher, healthcare worker, parent or friend who deserves time to breathe - consider nominating them for free nights in one of Getaway’s tiny cabin outposts to isolate, disconnect from work, and truly rest.