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Why leaders need to accept the externality of change

By Graham Winter and Martin Bean, leadership specialists

  • Leaders need to learn to live with the paradox of controlling in an environment where much is out of your control.
  • For adaptive leaders, success lies in being open and vulnerable in acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers.
  • Change is a feature of the modern workplace, but there is loss associated with change.

The impacts of the pandemic and what followed — rising energy costs, supply chain shortages, a war for talent, increasing social activism, tightened governance, cyber-attacks, media intrusion, Al and so on — have contributed to the perception (or reality) that leadership control has shifted. Add the increasing rejection by the workforce of overly hierarchical leadership and it is reasonable to expect leaders to feel less control of their environment than pre-pandemic.

Chris Tanti, CEO of the Leukaemia Foundation, was appointed during the pandemic. Tanti encountered turbulence in many forms, including staff turnover of greater than 50 per cent and a complete change in the board. He had to guide the organisation through transformation, and all the challenges of caring for and supporting an immuno-compromised community during the pandemic and beyond.

Seeking perspective, Chris reached out to a network of colleagues working in leadership roles across the world. They surprised him.

‘They were running hard and trying to control things that were clearly out of their control. You don’t have any control on how the market is going to respond, and you don’t know what governments are going to do, or whether it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The approach we took, and it’s still our approach, is, “All we can do is keep our eye on the prize and go with the instability”.’

Sometimes many things will be outside your control. When times are tough, confronting reality and focusing on what you can do (and control) now is the best way to optimise performance and wellbeing. As Voltaire said, ‘Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.’

Core principles

You can strengthen your leadership toolkit to help you live with the paradox of controlling in an environment where much is out of your control and hopes can be dashed.

This is a life skill, not just something for the workplace. Every parent of a teenager needs this superpower, just as anyone facing illness or grief can benefit from the mindset and tools for navigating uncertainty and mastering the art of making peace with loss.

Two core principles and associated tools will help you to do exactly that in work and in life:

Principle 1. Embrace the highway of uncertainty

We humans crave certainty. We don’t like hovering in uncertainty, even to the extent that stress levels often fall after the diagnosis of serious illness just because the uncertainty has been relieved. We want certainty because it feels safer.

You have three basic choices on crossing the highway of uncertainty:

  • Avoid. Do everything possible to avoid crossing, or if essential, hide in a group so you can’t see what’s approaching.
  • Join in and learn to cross by doing it a few times to build confidence in reading the ebb and flow of the traffic and build your own approach.
  • Lead. Do as the locals do by choosing to cross whenever you want, with whomever you want and at the pace that you choose with suitable awareness of the risks.

The key is to be aware of your current relationship with uncertainty, to accept the squirm of joining in and learning, and finally to take the lead by welcoming the opportunities of uncertainty.

As an adaptive leader, your success lies in being open and vulnerable in acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers, and in being more realistic with yourself about what you should know and control.

Principle 2. Deal with loss

Uncontrollable change is a feature of the constant flux of the modern workplace, but there is loss associated with change. As Picasso suggested, ‘Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.’

Change the organisation structure, change leaders, merge, cut or grow and there is loss. Of course, that’s not necessarily negative, because there are also new opportunities and relationships, and added value, but to take on uncontrollable change you must have the mental tools to deal with loss.

To grasp this process of letting go on the highway of uncertainty, it can be helpful to step through the three phases and reflect on your approach to loss and moving on:

  • Phase 1: Disruption — Disruption can take away both the physical and the psychological. For example, the fears of generative Al are partly about the physical loss of jobs and personal security, but they are equally about the psychological threat response: fear of loss of control, autonomy, competence etc. To join in and lead disruption, you must release and let go of loss.
  • Phase 2: Adaptation — Stepping into the new can feel very uncomfortable, uncertain and something of an emotional roller coaster. It can be alluring to go back, because there is anxiety and uncertainty about the future. However, adaptation doesn’t happen if you avoid the reality. You must embrace whatever is new, which might mean a new role, different relationships or perhaps a new identity. Adaptation has its own pace, requiring both personal reflection and shared conversations.
  • Phase 3: Advantage — Advantage happens when you have let go of the losses of disruption, joined in on the ‘highway’ and have been driven forward by hope, energy and creativity. New habits and practices emerge and you learn and grow. Advantage comes from unlocking potential in your organisation and its people and embracing change.

Control is overrated. Cross the highway

You can be sure that change is a constant and that it will often be beyond your control, which makes it essential to embrace uncertainty and take the lead rather than avoid it.

Now you face a paradox because while you cannot control everything, you do have agency and there are things you can control. Accept this paradox and be open to navigating loss at a pace that works for you and those you lead. You can and will turn disruption to advantage.


Material published in Governance Directions is copyright and may not be reproduced without permission. The views expressed therein are those of the author and not of Governance Institute of Australia. All views and opinions are provided as general commentary only and should not be relied upon in place of specific accounting, legal or other professional advice.


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