The Art Of Keeping Cool in Extreme Situations


Every now and then, a leader finds herself in front of a firing-squad, a group of people who are out there to either find fault or to find a scapegoat. Or it may be that things are not moving along as planned and they are crumbling all around you. Everyone is looking to you for guidance, and you must deliver. When this happens,DON'T be like Lord Beckett from the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. Watch how he reacts when he was out-manoeuvred by the pirates in the third installment of the franchise, At World's End.

What happened to Beckett was called the Simulation Heuristic. This is a simplified mental strategy that uses the most likely event based on how easy it is to picture it mentally, and expects that to occur. This will be all and well if events do turn out as expected. However, the problem arises when it does not turn out as expected; the person usually has no response to it and is seen doing exactly what Beckett did in the end - he is lost and capitulates. As a leader, we need to ensure that we do not end up as Beckett did, and here are 5 things that you can do to keep your head above the water when everything else is falling apart...

1. Expect the unexpected

It goes without saying that you should be mentally agile; to move with the times, and change when things don't turn out as planned. To do this, you must always expect the unexpected. Always monitor what is happening, keeping a sharp eye on the trajectory of events, expecting it to take a sharp turn at anytime. Maintaining this mental perspective will keep us on our toes, and allow us to react positively.

2. Adopt the hypothesis-driven process

Fail fast and fail cheap - that is the mantra of the hypothesis-driven process. By expecting that you will fail, and limiting the cost of failure, you are designing a level of resilience in your strategy and operations that promotes mental agility. Imagine that you want to demolish a building using explosives; you need to create a series of mini-explosions at strategic points so that the building implodes on itself, and not explode in all directions. The hypothesis-driven process is like this - each experiment is a mini-explosion that directs the process along a certain path, which, when taken together, will yield the final outcome. The difference, perhaps, between the experiments and the explosions is that we can repeat our experiments, if they didn't yield the right results; with the explosions, we might not have a second chance.

3. Don't analyse, just respond

When things start falling apart - and it will happen at some point in time - all you need to do is to just do something. A positive action can lead to move actions, and this pulls us out of mental seizure. You certainly don't have the time to analyse the situation, and diving deep to address root causes. You will have plenty of time after the event to do that. True, you run the risk of moving further into the fire if you don't know what caused the shift in outcomes, but as you can see from the movie, any action is better than no action. It is the inability to come up with a response that causes the person to capitulate.

4. No finger-pointing

Don't fall for the blame game, even if your boss wants to pin that on you. If you are blamed, take the blame and move on. Your prerogative is to get out of the situation, to stop things from further falling apart. When you start pushing the blame down to your people, you effectively kill your ability to react to the situation. Even if they deserve to be blamed, any responsibility assessment should be done after you have brought the ship to calmer waters. And at that point, you will realise that there is no real value of blaming any one. Yes, you learn from the mistakes, and take steps to avoid recurrence, but, there is no need to assign blame. The buck just stops with you!

5. Build a great team

One of your greatest assets is your people, and you will have to consistently build them up. Give them the best training, allow them to learn on the job, empower them to make mistakes, help them to fail fast and fail cheap. It is only when they know you have their back when times are bad, will they have your back in precisely those times. You therefore need to interact closely with them, build up their knowledge, expose them to new experiences, enlarge their thinking. The last thing you can do as a leader is to expect that people come in preformed. True, many companies hire people to do the job immediately; but this cannot happen because there are integration issues. Even the best people need time to build bonds, learn to trust one another, and learn to share knowledge. Being their leader, you need to make this happen, and constantly do so. And when the time comes for them to shine, step back. Don't micromanage; just let them do what they are supposed to do, so that you can do what you are supposed to do. It is only when they are given full control of the situation will you see them responding to it. And to the next one. And the next. You build your team's resilience simply by stepping back, and letting them do the work.

It will happen

The VUCA environment will very likely cause things to turn out unexpectedly. Do not allow what happened to Beckett happen to you too. Expecting the unexpected is surely the underlying strategy here. Of course, that might cause some undue stress, because we are always on the lookout for exceptions, when, quite frankly, there may be none! But don't let your guard down because it is when we are complacent that things will start slipping. Of course I am not implying that when we are on the alert, these things will not occur. They will; but at least we will not be caught with no idea of how to react to these changes, and we can counter faster with positive actions. One action will lead to another, and then another, and soon, we will be moving down a new path, and the disaster, averted. Expect the Unexpected; Adopt the Hypothesis-Driven Process; Don't analysis, just respond; No finger-pointing; Build a Great Team - these are five simple yet effective ways to keep the simulation heuristic at bay, and allow you to react positively to change.

These are the key leadership skills you need to keep your cool when everything else is crumbling all around you.

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