5 Tips to Thrive in Chaos (What Good Is Vision When You’re Up to Your A** in Alligators?)
I knew there’d be pushback the minute I dubbed vision the #1 leadership characteristic.
"Get real," several readers e-mailed. It reminded me of the cartoon a colleague once gave me, bearing the caption: “When you’re up to your a** in alligators, it’s hard to remember your goal was to drain the swamp.”
In a time of economic chaos, when many people are desperately trying to keep those writhing reptiles from nipping off their knees, lofty vision talk sounds unrealistic.
It’s difficult to keep your eyes on the prize, your focus on the vision, your hand steady to the wheel when the assumptions you thought were well grounded turn out to be quicksand. But a counterintuitive skill that can help you thrive in times of change and disruption is to embrace chaos as opportunity.
Sara Clemence, 36, is now a travel editor at the Wall Street Journal. But in 2008, she was working her way up the media hierarchy with an undeclared vision of eventually running her own publication. She’d just landed a spot at a hot new magazine, Conde Nast Portfolio when a wave of layoffs knocked her out of her job.
“Getting laid off was a blow to my ego and self-image,” she told me. “I considered myself an achiever, someone who would leave a position for something better, but never lose a job…I spent a weekend lying on the sofa, staring at the ceiling and wondering if I'd ever get up again.”
If that wasn’t enough to rattle her vision, a few months later, Clemence snagged a position with another magazine—and it folded that same day, leaving her unemployed again.
Of course, magazines weren’t the only businesses crumbling. The breadth of the financial industry’s misdeeds were being laid bare. In September, 2008, Lehmann Brothers closed, filing the largest bankruptcy in American history. Over $600 million in debt, setting off a spiraling chaos that has affected every part of the economy, the Lehmann crash knocked many people’s visions for a loop.
With friends experiencing layoffs all around, Clemence and two colleagues seized the opportunity in chaos. They created a website they called Recessionwire. Its goal was to help people get through the challenging times by providing tips to navigate the financial environment, sharing personal experiences, and serving as a source of economic information and trends.
Clemence said, “I needed to give myself the space to feel bad about what had happened. Only then could I start thinking in terms of possibility.”
The chaos was “a chance to consider anything!”
Similarly, as the magnitude of the Lehmann collapse suffused the public consciousness, people began to ask, “What if Lehmann Brothers had been Lehmann Sisters?” The testosterone-driven high-risk culture of the financial industry had clearly failed; that new vulnerability opened people’s minds to embrace change toward greater gender parity.
There are no magic answers to keeping true to your vision when the tectonic plates are shifting under your feet. But here are 5 tips to help keep your head above water and the alligators at bay.
1. Think positive. Be like Monty Python: Always look at the bright side of life. You might as well, since chaos is inevitable because change is inevitable. And whoever is most comfortable with the ambiguity created by change is most likely not just to survive but to thrive.
2. See your moment and seize it: Paradigm shifts don’t happen in moments of stability. Wars, economic upheavals, diseases like HIV/AIDS, social justice movements—these all cause social turbulence. “Normal” patterns are interrupted by technological innovations--the automobile, television, the pill, cell phones, the Internet, Twitter. Suddenly, if a woman can offer a solution in a traditional male field, and it works, no one cares whether she has higher-pitched voices and doesn’t follow football scores. Seize the advantage when boundaries are hazy because that's when the world is open to new solutions.
3. Take the lead. Courage to act in the midst of chaos is the core of leadership: to own responsibility when you don’t have total authority, to make decisions when you know none of the options is perfect, to lead even when you’re quaking in your boots. As Clemence says, “Creating Recessionwire was empowering. I learned a tremendous amount about business, and about—well, remember that old Nike slogan, ‘Just Do It?’ I used to think that people who did extraordinary things were somehow different. I learned that they're people who ‘Just Do It.’”
4. Look through other eyes. How do people in completely different fields and points of view approach chaos? Whatever you think of Sarah Palin, for example, she certainly seized the opportunity during McCain’s 2008 faltering presidential race to propel herself forward. I’m a great fan of cards called “Creative Whacks” to help me think up new solutions for seemingly intractable problems. (And do try to see the humor in every situation—laughter is always useful leavening for new ideas.)
5. Appreciate the potential: Since innovation usually comes from people not regarded as the norm—like a teenaged Bill Gates creating Microsoft in his garage—we often don’t see it coming. Our instinct is to seek stability. That squanders the incredible potential of disruptive change to create new channels of opportunity, more inclusive vocabularies, and better technologies. Chaos signals boundaries are fluid so you can accomplish things you might not have been able to do otherwise.
In the end the person who will be the most successful in leadership is someone who understands that chaos is opportunity waiting to be seized. Clemence suggests asking: “What does this give you the chance to do, see, experience or be? Take that, and then think even bigger.”
When you’ve been in a chaotic situation, in work or in your personal life, did you retreat, or did you step forward and own it, rewriting the rules and setting new parameters? What did you learn that might help others?