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Harness the Current

Access Continuum’s Leadership Model for leading through novel unknowns

Continuum Consulting Services LLC

A favorite pastime of mine during the pandemic has been to strap on my boots, pick up my hiking stick and head out into the Blue Ridge mountains with my puppy, Shanti. One of the benefits of living in Asheville, NC, is that the mountains, along with the many rivers and streams, form my extended backyard playground.

The Shope Creek trails can be accessed just up the road from me. Soon after turning onto the path, you come to a 15-foot-wide creek that must be crossed to reach the rest of the trail system. Clear water pours over rocks of all sizes there, and the stepping-stone path to the other side shifts a little with each rainfall. I let Shanti off leash to splash her way over, which she joyfully does every time. I, on the other hand, take extra time, using the stick to stabilize myself, gingerly testing each rock before taking a step.

More than once, I thought a stone was secure only to find that when I shifted my weight, it rocked loose, and I had to swiftly backtrack to find a different path forward. I have to admit, there have even been a few times when I miscalculated the next step and fell into the creek! I’d get up, shake myself off, check to make sure my ankle hadn’t twisted, and then continue making my way to the other side. 

Reflecting on my journeys across the creek, I realize there’s a lot we can learn from my stepping-stone experiences about leading through times of uncertainty.

I have been in the consulting business for more than 25 years. Gone are the days when I could work with a leader or team to set a clear vision and then outline the exact steps to the goal. Life and business now look more like crossing Shope Creek. We can plot a path but must focus on the best next step forward, adjusting as we gain new information.

We can still set a vision and outline a strategy to get there, but the path forward is constantly shifting with the next challenge that emerges. In business, the challenge may be supply chain issues, lack of qualified people to hire or the impact of climate change and drastic weather events. I was recently on a client conference call with team members from all over the U.S.  One person was dealing with California fires and the possibility of evacuation, another with flooding in NYC, and yet another with a person who had been exposed to Covid and had been in the office the day before.

The environment we are working in now brings unprecedented challenges and opportunities to fall in the creek as we navigate the cascading novel unknowns of our times.

Sometimes, especially now, we may know where we want to go and think we know how to get there, but the only thing we can really plan on is the next step forward. Even then, just as with the stepping-stones in the creek, things we thought were stable may not be. We have to remain nimble, ready to extend a step forward and willing to catch ourselves, going back a step or reaching out to a different rock if needed. Even with our best efforts, we may still fall into the creek and will need the courage to get up, shake ourselves off and move forward. It’s the only thing we can do. We must cultivate the art of taking the best next step forward.

Check out Continuum’s Leadership Model for managing through cascading novel unknowns. Try it on and ready yourselves for complex creek crossings.

Wendy B. White is co-founder and partner with Continuum Consulting Services.