Harness the Current

Access Continuum’s Leadership Model for leading through novel unknowns

Continuum Consulting Services LLC

“What got you here won’t get you there,” noted Marshall Goldsmith, leadership coach and author. His words are especially true today.

As the pandemic continues, the belief that we will return to normal is fading and a clear sense of a “new normal” still remains elusive. COVID has created an unprecedented layer of complexity. It has also challenged leaders in ways the past has not prepared them. Indeed, the game of business is transforming in ways we never could have imagined.

In novel times such as these, when courage is required to make decisions, leaders instead are experiencing increased amounts of uncertainty, paralysis and denial and their confidence is waning.

Additionally, the longer the “new normal” fails to appear on the horizon, the greater the fatigue.

New Types of Leadership Decisions

Leaders who have been successful in the past are not adjusting easily to the novel complexities facing business today. There’s a reason why.

Never before have leaders had to make decisions related to physical space that result in stranded real estate. They are also having to blend virtual and in-office teams to create a sense of teamwork. Finally, they are facing a new frontier: virtually hiring and onboarding talent.

Leadership today is complex. Leaders must create policies for protecting the health and wellness of their people. Simultaneously, they must determine how to run the business and sustain it into the future, despite the future being an unknown.

Leaders are also facing larger, more socially accountable decisions. They are being challenged to truly walk the talk of respecting diversity, equity and inclusivity by removing long-term, high-level executives due to their ongoing racial and sexual microaggressions.

Human Nature’s Default

With all these unknowns, hanging on to the old ways, even if they are not working so well, is comforting. It’s also human nature.

“[A]nxiety, cognitive narrowing, and clinging tightly to old ways are natural responses when individuals and groups feel overwhelmed by scary events that they did not anticipate, do not understand, and believe they cannot control,” noted Robert I. Sutton, Stanford University author and professor, in “A CEO’s Guide to Reengineering the Senior Team,” McKinsey Quarterly, September 2009.

But such times are also the litmus test for leaders.

“Anyone can lead when the plan is working, but the true test of a leader is when the plan falls apart,” notes best-selling author and leadership expert Robin Sharma. His words are especially true today, when the failure of leaders to lead appears both in the virtual boardroom and in the nightly news.

But even with all the unknowns, effective leaders are rising to the top. They are demonstrating what we at Continuum call “Stand-Up Leadership.” They are, in effect, Stand-Up Leaders.

How to Recognize Stand-Up Leaders

Stand-Up Leaders are all around us, at home and at work. And even if you can’t quite articulate what it is about them that makes them stand out, you know who they are when you see them.

Stand-Up Leaders:

  • Know themselves well,
  • Live true to their values,
  • Are systems thinkers who consider all facets of the complexity,
  • Take stands for what they believe,
  • Are decisive, not divisive,
  • Act ahead of the curve, and
  • Instigate plans for the greater good. 

What does Stand-Up Leadership Look Like in Action?

When Jarred Polis, Governor of Colorado, saw the first tell-tale signs of an uptick in COVID cases, he had to determine how to protect people’s health and wellness while simultaneously ensuring that Colorado’s economy remained open.

Polis decided to issue an executive order mandating masks be worn in public spaces.

Polis had to make a difficult decision and communicate it effectively. He knew there would be resistance. He said as much when he communicated his decision, citing his rationale, and the deeper concerns that were at stake, in an NBC News program.

Polis modeled Stand-Up Leadership. He also lit the way for other leaders to follow.

How To Be a Stand-Up Leader

  1. Know where you sit before you take a stand, to paraphrase Rufus E. Miles, Jr., assistant secretary under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, and others.
    • Be self-aware of your mindsets, beliefs, thoughts and emotions because they impact what you say and do.
    • Get real with your emotions, and face the fears, uncertainties, and assumptions that may be distracting you. Make them explicit so that you humanize the situation.
    • Live your values in every interaction, modeling the behaviors you need in others because people are hyper-focused on the moves you make more than the words you speak, especially during tough times.
  1. Know who and what you stand for.
    • Appeal to what is important for others and empathize with their emotions.
    • Take a stand for the best bottom-line goal for the circumstances despite resistance. (Polis took a stand for protecting people and the economy without deviation.)
    • Flip the focus from criticizing, condemning, complaining, and blaming to focusing on what’s already working well, what’s possible, who to include, and the best possible solution given the situation for moving forward. Find the silver lining and rally people together towards the best outcome. (“Together we will get through this,” is Polis’ rally cry.)
  1. Stay ahead of the curve.
    • Establish and reinforce boundaries, guidelines and expectations for moving forward. People gain clarity and feel safer this way.
    • Be inclusive of experts and data and be aware of assumptions and beliefs when making decisions.
    • Explicitly communicate all information on hand and your decision-making criteria so to build trust and rapport with people impacted by the decisions.
  1. Squint into the future.
    • Anticipate what might be coming.
    • Prepare for what is possible.

Your Turn

When the pandemic hit, Brenna Simmons-St. Onge, Executive Director of the Alliance Center in Denver, took action, in large part because she saw the silver lining; she saw the opportunity.

When she did, she and her team established the Regenerative Recovery Coalition. Its goal was simple: to bring forth a community of solutions and create a sustainable and equitable future for Colorado, post-pandemic. Their rally cry is to “Build Back Better.”

Look around. Opportunities are everywhere during these challenging times. Find one that resonates. Then, stand up and lead.