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Comfortable with Chaos

Can you imagine anything more discombobulating than driving at 100 mph in a thick fog, with the radio blaring, cell phone ringing, and two kids in the back seat asking, “Are we there yet?”, and the third asking to go to the bathroom NOW? The fog is thick, the pace is rapid, and the distractions are constant and loud. No question, it’s an uncomfortable environment. It’s chaotic, for sure.


One of the subjects the students of culture and history mention with great regularity is that the fast advancements in technology, the confusion over so many things in societal mores, more often come with chaos and disarray. Many of us have personalities that lead us to desire that we could just wipe that all off, settle things, nail down the corners, and get some certainty. But if you want to be a REAL, effective leader, you must understand that uncertainty about the unknown future is something that you, along with your teams, need to become comfortable with.


As a father of four kids, I feel qualified to speak with a certain amount of authority on the concept of living and dealing with chaos. Three sons, a daughter, a mother and a father, all with distinct personalities and opinions we are not afraid to share, give me confidence to say with complete honesty that it has been years since there was a dull moment in our house.

I am sure that describes your life too. The reality is that all of us are dealing with multiplying chaos in all aspects of our lives—work, home, everywhere. The question becomes, how do we effectively deal with the chaos and uncertainty that surround us? A common reaction is panic—and panic is contagious. Soon everyone is fearful, and losses are quick.


President and former General Eisenhower remarked with regards to planning: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Not only in battle but in today’s rapidly changing world, we must concentrate less on executing flawlessly and more on preparing to deal with the inevitable unforeseen and unpredictable.

Military leaders today have much to teach us. They must be comfortable with being uncomfortable. In places like Afghanistan, geographic distances are so huge and challenges so varied that leaders cannot possibly be everywhere or know everything that is happening. Jake Wood, a former Marine who served with distinction in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has written a book called Take Command: Lessons in Leadership. In it he shares an acronym to describe the chaotic environment: VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity – that is their new normal. They know that we must learn and re-learn methods for leading effectively. By the way, Wood has taken time to initiate Team Rubicon, an organization he formed to take former military personnel to disaster areas of the world and restore order.

Chaos is . . .

  • Volatility: an understanding of the elements that cause instability, but the inability to control them.

  • Uncertainty: the lack of predictability.

  • Complexity: countless interconnected parts and variables where causes have multiple consequences.

  • Ambiguity: unknown unknowns

Wherever you lead, no matter how perfect your plan is, it is likely to get out of whack the second you start trying to work it. You will always encounter something you weren’t expecting. Once you accept this reality, your leadership effectiveness goes way up! The only leadership that will make it in these days is the leadership that remains flexible and can make timely decisions even when surrounded by uncertainty and chaos.


It’s very easy for leaders to become demoralized and give up when their detailed plans don’t work out as they hoped. They have been focused on the exact outcome they desired, and so they struggle with blaming the people, the circumstances they feel might have been the root of the “failure.”


How do we counter this and become comfortable with chaos and truly become effective leaders?


When VUCA occurs, Wood explains, you have to fight back with another VUCA: Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. Let’s figure out what contributes to that:

VALUES: What is important to us and why? Leaders must ensure that the organization’s values are clear and reinforced at every opportunity. More than just a poster in the hallway, the values must truly motivate behavior and help define black versus white in a world full of gray.


VISION: Where are we going? What is our shared view of the end state, purpose, and key tasks that will keep us on track? Vision inspires people to want to do more, especially when times are tough, because they believe in the purpose and have bought into the organizational direction. Effective leaders need to focus their energy on effectively communicating the overall intent and desired outcome of their plan to their people.


INTENT: Intent conveys to teammates guidance and direction without actually being there. It communicates the desires of the leader, such that people can answer for themselves: What would my boss want me to do if he/she were here? The leader’s intent is the pathway through which people exercise initiative and take action, without being told, because they know what is required and why. The how is up to them. The LEADER focuses mainly on the OUTCOME. The details of how we will get that outcome need to be left to the leaders on the field. The leader must create that environment (the BIG L Leader to his leaders, and the leaders to their teams). Then, the leader must support and encourage de-centralized decision-making. In other words, once your intent is clearly communicated, you need to be prepared to allow your “leaders on the ground” to make as many autonomous decisions as possible. Otherwise, there will be continual questioning, delays, and the entire project will be bogged down and overwhelmed by the unforeseen.


CLARITY AND COMMUNICATION: Leaders over-communicate to ensure that the vision sounds like a “drumbeat” in people’s heads, keeping them in step and marching toward victory. Ineffective leadership only shares what they think others need to know. Effective leaders want everyone to have the full story and so they can take advantage of opportunities, learn from the challenges of others, and make decisions that align with the big picture.


ALIGNMENT: How do we ensure consistency with regard to our actions, priorities, and resources? Leaders spend much of their time in meetings or just walking around (the military calls it battlefield circulation) checking and adjusting the alignment of the organization, ensuring the connection of individual actions with the overall team goals. The role of the leader as “Chief Alignment Officer” is among the most significant of the leader’s many responsibilities. This is how a team in the new environment MUST work. Things move too quickly to make major adjustments well down the line.


LEAD FOR SPEED, FLEXIBILITY, AND RESILIENCE: You and your team members must be able to function in this way. Perfection will be the enemy of good otherwise.

Clearly, preparing yourself by becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable is key to great leadership in today’s chaotic world. Coming to terms with what’s at stake and building a culture that guides decisions in the absence of orders or all the information you wish you had will make you a better leader and your organization better equipped to handle disaster.

Woods says that the way a leader reacts is also equally as important as the way they prepare. They should move toward the chaos, not away from it. Taking it one step at a time will benefit in the immediate aftermath and in the long run.

Get comfortable with chaos, and lead. We can do it.

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