This is the third article in a 10-part series on what it means to lead effectively in the 21st century. Read the whole series here.
I used to think leaders controlled everything in a company. They were the ones with all the power, after all (at least according to the org chart). It seemed to follow quite naturally that anytime something went wrong in the business, it was ultimately someone in leadership's fault.
An employee is underperforming? That person's manager controls team development and motivation, so it must be his fault. Missed our quarterly sales goals? The VP of Sales controls sales hiring and training, so it must be her fault. A product launch falls flat? The Head of Product controls go-to-market strategy, so it must be his fault.
You are not in control.
If only it were that simple! If only fixing all our business problems boiled down to controlling everything more perfectly! Alas, when I became a leader myself, I learned very quickly just how little control I had. In many ways, I had even less control than I'd had as an individual contributor.
Individual contributors are in control of their own work and output. As long as they have the right skills and access to the right resources, they have a great deal of control over their success, as well. Leaders, however, are responsible for the success of other people, and no matter how much we might like to, we can't control other people. We can only do our best to influence them.
It doesn't stop there. Add in a volatile and uncertain economy, political turmoil and rapid technological change, and work in the 21st century starts to look positively chaotic. No wonder leaders and employees alike feel constantly buffeted about by forces beyond their control.
Learn to embrace uncertainty.
The secret isn’t to try and control everything, nor is it to try and shield your team from all the ways you feel out of control. Neither will work. To lead effectively in the 21st century, you need to be able to do three things:
1. Get comfortable with uncertainty. It sounds blindingly obvious, yet it's incredibly hard to really and truly let go of the need for certainty. Humans are hard-wired to crave it, so go easy on yourself if you struggle. Two things really helped me.
The first was recognizing that at least in business, the stakes really aren't that high most of the time. Very few business challenges are matters of life and death. No one is going to die if a high performer quits. The company won't go under if the accounting team loses your invoice. The world won't end if a big sales deal falls through. Even if the stock market crashes or a competitor disrupts your industry, life will go on. Uncertainty doesn't feel so scary when you adopt this perspective.
The second was developing a regular meditation practice. I use the HeadSpace app, and I can't recommend it enough. It has changed my life.
2. Help your team get comfortable with uncertainty. However you handle uncertainty, you set the example for your entire team. If you panic and point fingers every time something bad happens that's out of your control, they'll panic, too. If you keep a clear head and focus on solutions, they'll be far more likely to do so. You can't control how your team responds, but you can control how you respond. Chances are, they'll follow your lead.
If your company is going through an especially volatile time, check in regularly with everyone on your team about how they're handling it. Remove obstacles where you can, but mostly, just listen and ensure everyone feels heard.
3. Focus on helping your team thrive. One of the best things you can do in the midst of uncertainty is create a safe environment for your team to experiment, stretch themselves professionally and take appropriate risks without repercussion. When you do this, you are actually creating a kind of certainty for your team--the promise that you care about their development and will value their ideas.
You can't control when the next economic downtown will occur or even whether your teammates will like you, but you can create a culture where they know they won't get fired for disagreeing with you or trying something new. In a modern workplace that often feels scary and unpredictable, this goes a long way.