Leading when you are lost

October 26, 2016

I recently returned to Design Concepts after a deeply meaningful six-month world trip with my husband and elementary school-aged daughters. 

When people ask, “How was it?” my best answer is, “We were lost a lot.”

I don’t mean lost on the map per se. More that we weren’t in control. Day to day, language barriers put us at the mercy of strangers, who were overwhelmingly kind. And consistently, unexpected issues such as train strikes, national holidays and the Brexit vote affected us in ways we couldn’t predict. A lot of things were up in the air as we made our way through 14 countries.

Not knowing what you’re eating or where you’re staying or where you’re headed next is what many people cite as the thrill of travel. I thought so, too, until we had two little girls in tow. For them, it was deeply frightening. It became clear to me that what worked best to assuage their fears were not the “mom” skills of comforting and reassuring, but my “work” skills of articulating vision, purpose and tasks. Essentially, leadership.

I relied heavily on the following three behaviors during our travels, which drew heavily from uncertain work situations that I’ve been in. It is worth remembering how they apply.

 Look up, not down

When we were in countries such as Malaysia where very little English was spoken and maps were hard to read, we relied almost exclusively on our observational skills. We spent time on the small Island of Langkawi. Our Airbnb host insisted that we would be able to find everything we needed within a short distance our little Malay stilt house. Unable to read any shop or street signs, we were lost. We found our way to food, to the post office, to the beach and onto the boat by watching the behavior of others. A bunch of people coming up the street with bags indicated a market was nearby. A boat steward stacking luggage gave a clue that it was the place to queue up. A post-office agent looking at the clock meant the office was about to close and we better be quick

Nothing in a map could have helped us as much as simply keeping our eyes open.

Similarly, when things are challenging at work it is tempting to lead by “digging in” to the numbers or the strategy or something else small and specific. As temping as this is, leaders need to be scanning the horizon. They need to be looking up and out and assessing the landscape, not fidgeting with the controls. More actionable information can be gained from this and your team will feel more confident knowing that you’re focused on navigating rather than zeroing in.

Avoid staying focused 

Believe it or not, avoiding focus and letting it all steep in, is critical to leadership. Much like you must relax your eyes (a “soft gaze”) in order to see the image embedded in a 3D poster, it’s important to NOT  fixate on something in order to really see. In uncertain situations, letting the reality of an issue sink in is critical to addressing it. 

Nothing in a map could have helped us as much as simply keeping our eyes open.

When we first arrived in Bosnia, we were still dressed as though we were in Thailand. A late spring snow storm made this a problem. Finding ourselves lost, yet again, in the hilly neighborhoods of Sarajevo and wearing only flip-flops, we stumbled into a bar. It was filled with men drinking cold pivo (beer) and strong coffee. When we sheepishly explained to the English-speaking bartender that we needed to find some warm clothes, he challenged us by saying, “No, my friends, you actually need a coffee. Then you can think about how it is to be in Europe. Sit down.”

When a work crisis presents itself, it’s natural to get hyper-focused and prepare for action. Taking a step back, or even a step aside, allows a leader to gain perspective. It is a difficult position to take, especially in the workplace where we are measured on what we “do” and not what we think about. But I have learned that by not focusing directly on the problem at hand and by exercising the patience to not act immediately, a richer solution to a problem will be found.

Look ‘em in the eye

Good leaders aren’t scared of addressing the problem. When a boatman failed to come retrieve us from the shore of the Namkhan River in Laos, I had no idea how we would to get back to our cabin on the other side. Our daughters kept asking where the guy was. When I looked them in the eye and told them he probably wasn’t coming and we were going to have to figure it out ourselves, I could see their panic. And then … their utter relief. They stopped worrying about what might happen and were able to channel their energy into what to do. The kids started waving wildly at a man in a longtail boat who came to our rescue and paddled us across.

It is the same in the workplace. When your team is unclear about what is happening or unsure about what will happen next, a lot of energy can be wasted on fretting or conjecture. Fill them in – even if you are also scared and unsure. Often, people are okay if there isn’t a solution; they just want to know what the problem is and have reassurance that their leader recognizes it. Teams don’t fall apart because there isn’t an answer; they fail when people don’t know what the problem is. Your job as a leader is to identify and articulate the issue – no matter how scary that feels.

Leadership involves vision, which may be obvious given that all three of the tips I offer relate to sight. Whether you are leading two children around the globe or a directing work team of 50, leadership also requires remaining open, having faith in the capabilities of your team, and being honest and transparent about fear. In many ways, leadership is not about solving the problem, it’s about involving other people to help find the answer. Not only does this give a team a sense of control when things are uncertain, it makes your life as a leader easier, too