In the unpredictable, uncertain and changing times, even before COVID-19, being proactive was a most significant and important skill for all of us, especially for leaders. To have people in an organisation who were solution focused and forward thinking was both inspiring and motivating. They took initiative and were self-directed. They didn’t wait for instructions from above, choosing to act rather than be acted upon. They didn’t blame others or circumstances for what was happening in their lives. They assumed responsibility for it and for changing it. They always looked first to themselves for answers. They were “can do”, glass half full people. They were an empowering presence in an organisation, generating high energy and enthusiasm.
In every organisation there are the opposite people, reactive people. They are the bane of every leader and manager. They whinge and complain about what is happening. They contribute blame to their leaders for it happening even while it may be way outside their realm of responsibility. They then criticise them for not doing something about it and making it right. They don’t see themselves as having any responsibility either for what may have happened or for fixing it. While evoking a sense of powerlessness (even learned helplessness) to change what is happening on the one hand, they often display considerable power in creating unrest in the organisation as they mobilise the reactivity of other employees.
I’ve always called on people to be proactive. I’ve always believed it was a matter of mindset. By changing your thoughts you could change your behaviour. It was a shift that was possible if you developed some self-awareness of what was happening within you. You could see the considerable benefits of being proactive as compared with being reactive.
Yet here we are now caught in this unprecedented reality of the COVID-19 pandemic that I feel challenges those beliefs. My mentoring of leaders and managers is telling me that even the most competent and experience ones are caught in a tension. They are pulled one way by a mindset naturally inclined to being proactive, but pulled back into reactivity and a feeling of helplessness. What is to happen to their organisations, finances, employees, the very shape of business in the future are all unclear. They experience an uncertainty that deep down challenges their years of leadership. They don’t know where the future is, let alone what it will be. They don’t know how to shape a future that seems to have no context and no boundaries yet. They struggle inwardly to control the reactive pull backwards.
No one sees this on the outside. The mentoring relationships allows them to share at this level and they usually share at the same level with their life partner. Everyone else sees a confident and proactive leader who will lead them into this new future. If this is you, it is OK to feel that way, but find a way to embrace it, not react to it.
Leading through uncertainty today is about living creatively with that tension between proactivity and reactivity. It calls for the strength that lies in vulnerability and a relaxed ego. I am reminded of something Thomas Moore said in a book on the work of psychotherapist James Hillman. Surrendering to this space allows us to “find vitality in tension, learn from paradox, gather wisdom by straddling ambivalence, and gain confidence in trusting the confusion that naturally arises from multiplicity.” I believe this is a way of being, an ontology, for an age of uncertainty, an age of COVID-19 times.
Those of us who can learn to live creatively and confidently in that tension will be those who will shape this new future with proactive leadership. In the process, we will inspire others to join with us and follow us into this new beginning.
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