Finding order in chaos

In his book, Better Under Pressure, Justin Menkes has identified three traits that enable the most successful business leaders to operate in challenging times: realistic optimism, subservience to purpose and finding order in chaos.

The ability to find order in chaos seems most applicable today, so I want to focus on the two elements that make up that trait.

First, is maintaining clarity of thought. In times of stress, the best leaders don’t just tolerate the stress. They use it to motivate themselves and the people they lead to focus on the right priorities.

One of the biggest temptations in the midst of a crisis is to become consumed by it to the point that all you can focus on is what’s right in front of you. As Menkes writes, “You’ve got to be thinking about how it’s going to be when you come out of it, not just six months from now, but six years from now.”

That’s where crises can actually be useful tools – if used correctly. They can help the leader focus the team on the essentials of the business and pursue them relentlessly.

Second is being driven to solve the puzzle. Business today, in a rapidly changing marketplace, is little more than a never-ending series of puzzles to be solved. As Menkes writes, “there is always a critical puzzle to solve.”

Successful leaders get curious in a crisis. How can we get through this and come out stronger on the other side? How have people navigated something like this before? What’s the next step?

I’ve talked to dozens of business leaders over the past few weeks, in various stages of the ability to find order in chaos. And here’s the takeaway: it wasn’t their circumstances that influenced this most directly.

One calm leader I talked to was at the head of a company in a good state – still doing some business, no debt, good cash position, and he was methodically meeting the crisis of COVID-19. Another, had completely shut his doors and furloughed is entire staff. He was also confident that they were in a good spot and was focused on applying for the SBA Paycheck Protection Program.

That’s the message of Menkes’ book. Leaders can’t control their circumstances, but they can always control how they respond to those circumstances. How you respond to a crisis – from a small personnel issue to one as a big as a new coronavirus – determines your ability to lead.

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