“If we fail to accept and celebrate the very essence of our imperfect universe — we overlook impactful people; we ignore opportunities; we fail to contribute; and most importantly we don’t live with gratitude.” – Faisal Hoque
by Faisal Hoque
We’re now living and operating in a very different world than the one that existed just a few months ago. No one really knows what’s coming around the next corner, we’re all operating on uneven footing. Still, leaders’ jobs haven’t fundamentally changed–we still need to spark creativity, drive progress, and ensure sustainability.
So I’ve been reminding myself that while I can’t predict the future, I can at least try to prepare to live in it, make sense of it, and navigate whatever upheavals arise as strategically as possible.
And to do that, I keep going back to these tried-and-true lessons:
As humans, our instincts are to fight bitterly against the adversity we are faced with. The most resilient among us will often find a way to fight it by embracing it.
On my desk, I have a copy of The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. Very few have talked about embracing adversity like him. He was a professor at Carnegie Mellon and a husband and father of three. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live. He gave his Last Lecture on September 18, 2007. His story, and in particular this final lecture, are a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit.
“Another way to be prepared is to think negatively. Yes, I’m a great optimist. But, when trying to make a decision, I often think of the worst case scenario. I call it ‘the eaten by wolves factor.’ If I do something, what’s the most terrible thing that could happen? Would I be eaten by wolves? One thing that makes it possible to be an optimist, is if you have a contingency plan for when all hell breaks loose. There are a lot of things I don’t worry about, because I have a plan in place if they do.” — Randy Pausch
Randy decided to accept his situation and live out the days he had remaining by making a difference. He died on July 25, 2008, and now he lives on not only through his family but also through the millions he inspired. I am certainly one of them. If you haven’t seen the Last Lecture or read the book, then you must. Once we accept our situation, it allows us to adapt and even thrive in the face of adversity.
From Beethoven to Newton to Buddha to Darwin, all experienced critical awakenings during self-imposed solitary periods. The psychologist and author Rollo May explained this phenomenon very well in his book The Courage to Create. “In order to be open to creativity,” he wrote, “one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.”
Nicola Tesla, one of the greatest innovators of all time, concurred:
“The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone — that is the secret of invention: Be alone, that is when ideas are born.”
These days, we now have the scientific evidence to back up those claims. Research conducted by Greg Feist of San Jose State University found that when people let their focus shift away from others around them, they’re better able to engage in “metacognition,” the process of thinking critically and reflectively about your own thoughts.
Sometimes we need to slow down in order to move forward. Slowing downis a deliberate choice that can lead to greater appreciation for the inner and outer world. Being truly in the moment allows us to escape from adversity and conserve our inner energy. Solitude allows for slow down.
In many ways, our thoughts control our lives. So negative thinking attracts negative energy; positive thinking attracts positive energy. Buddha, Aristotle and many others have suggested the same, how we think creates the energy that ultimately manifests our realities. If we go into a situation with a negative thought process then we are almost destined to have a negative outcome.
This also applies to group thinking or collective consciousness. When a collection of people together guides their mental energy for a positive outcome, the likelihood of their success is usually lot higher. Their collective energy attracts positivity or negativity.
Lao Tzu said,
“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: What is soft is strong.”
Our ability to effectively survive, thrive, and lead comes from flexibly riding out our ups and downs. Life’s journey does not always come from blasting through rocks and impediments, rather from having the faith, resilience, and adaptability to cope with the harsh realities of life.
The physical reaction to fear and pain is called the “fight or flight” response. Being mindful is the exact opposite of that response. Mindful living comes from ‘letting go’. Letting go is the inner action that stops resisting fear and pain. It allows us to restore our ability to see clearly.
The people we surround ourselves with (virtually or physically) greatly impacts our daily energy. Spending time with people who make you stronger requires intentional effort, and is a key component in being able to move forward. Equally important is to avoid people who bring us down, waste our time, take us backward, and have no interest in our suffering.
I set priorities for the beginning of the day the night before. These priorities are not only based on the importance of the goals but also based on the prospect of completion.
If we want to be productive with our time and manage it well, we need to spend our time working toward achieving smaller goals with a series of small tasks. Setting smaller goals for ourselves offers us positive reinforcement when we achieve them. It feels good to know that I am accomplishing something. It helps keep me motivated and encouraged at working toward my bigger goals and aspirations.
As retired Navy Admiral William Harry McRaven so famously said:
“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed… If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. And by the end of the day, that one task completed, will have turned into many tasks completed.”
There is a saying that 80% of our accomplishments come from 20% of our efforts. So what 20% of our work is the most valuable? Once we’ve identified it, focusing the lion’s share of our time and energy in that direction creates progress. Selecting the right success indicators to drive our activities creates the tasks we can knock out first for greatest impact.
Managing crisis means accepting incredible levels of uncertainty with a calm, cool, and positive attitude. That’s never easy. But the sense of urgency to tackle tough situations always requires an even temper.
In order to communicate a decisive yet flexible plan as soon as crisis hits, you’ll need to assess the situation effectively:
a. Ask yourself: What does this situation demand? Is it a personnel crisis, a systemic crisis, or a contextual one?
b. Then craft an immediate-term response strategy based on how you want to emerge from this crisis at the end — even if you don’t know exactly how you’ll get there — communicate it to your team, partners, and customers.
c. Finally, as you begin rolling out that strategy, keep an eye on ability (your own and your organization’s) to communicate and execute it based on how the crisis evolves (and it will!) — without losing sight of your assets, structure, and capabilities.
True leaders inspire and influence everyone in good times and bad — their executive team, employees, customers, clients, partners, and many others. Even if some decisions involve the most basic of gut instincts, leaders navigating crises need to tell their teams precisely what they want, when, and why — then help them make it happen. Waiting too long to weigh countervailing opinions can spell doom.
Communicating effectively in times of uncertainty means not just articulating your point of view, but listening actively — without bias or judgment and with a real willingness to consider different perspectives. That means paying heed not just to the content of others’ ideas, but to their emotional tone, too. Both are crucial for mutual understanding — and, ultimately, everyone getting back on their feet.
For communication to get through on all sides, we have to be clear about what we want from each other. That’s true all the time, but especially so during periods of high uncertainty.
There’s no way to start working toward a common goal until everyone understands what it is and what’s expected of them to help achieve it. As a leader, I try especially hard to remain approachable and keep an open dialogue flowing. It’s harder to keep everyone motivated, asking questions, and sharing their concerns when a lot is changing. But getting it right just means doubling down on the type of empathy leaders love to talk about under much steadier conditions.
This means not just clearly articulating our message but also listening actively — without bias or judgment and with a real willingness to consider different perspectives. Again, this is an adage so familiar that it almost sounds trite, but it’s something I keep coming back to these days. It’s about trading messages respectfully and accurately, not just delivering them. Paying heed to their factual as well as emotional content makes for mutual understanding when that’s badly needed.
Leaders may feel their job is to reassure their teams–to talk more than they’re used to. But I’ve found listening to be even more important. When I’m actively listening, I’ll hear genuine concerns and clear a space for talking level-headedly about how to cope with them together.
Humans are resilient creatures. We have a natural capacity to move toward the light, to make the most of bad situations. In turmoil, I know that it’s paramount for me as to define a better vision for the future. But there’s a risk of getting too philosophical and losing your momentum, your impulse toward action.
I’ve found that in trying to instill a sense of mission and purpose in my organization, I need to keep underscoring the urgency of the tasks at hand. No mission is static–it’s never just a matter of principles. It’s what you doabout them that counts. Purpose-driven organizations act and adapt. No matter the political, social, or economic climate, there’s always a way to find new market spaces or gaps in existing ones. There are always problems to solve.
To stay agile and respond to changes my team and I can never predict, I try to keep asking myself:
1. What product or service needs, technologies, and socioeconomic factors are already changing–no matter what we might be doing about them?
2. What are my most socioeconomic impactful strategies? Where will they be in the next quarter or the next year?
3. What does my organization do well right now? What have we always done better than anybody?
4. What can we do better by finding new partners or collaborators, or by considering mergers and acquisitions?
This is a useful checklist all the time, of course, but I try to keep it front and center during periods of rapid change. If change is embedded in everything you do already, then adapting to a period of turmoil won’t seem like such a foreign concept. In my experience, that takes a culture of experimentation and responsibility. When things are going well, innovation tends to offer incremental benefits, but when circumstances demand making big shifts quickly, you need everyone to know it’s incumbent on them to take risks, and that they have the liberty to do so.
You may not know what’s coming next, but the thing about uncertainty is that it’s never an unfamiliar feeling. There was an earlier moment where you felt just as uncertain, but you somehow made it through. For me, anyway, the key isn’t just to wait it out; it’s what you do–together–that makes all the difference.
Copyright © 2020 by Faisal Hoque. All rights reserved.
Serial entrepreneur Faisal Hoque is the founder of Shadoka, which enables aspirations to lead, innovate, and transform with its accelerators and solutions. He is the author of “Everything Connects: How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation, and Sustainability” (McGraw-Hill) and other books. Follow him on Twitter @faisal_hoque.