Leadership During Turbulent Times: Navigation vs. Control

Picture this scene: You are out sailing in your boat on a halcyon day. The sun is shining, there is a steady wind, and you are looking forward to a great day. All of a sudden, a squall blows up, and although you manage to get the sail down and keep the boat from keeling over, it's a tough fight before you are finally able to steer the boat to shore.

Leadership can be somewhat like this. There you are, sailing along smoothly, and before you know it, a squall hits. If you are prepared, you know that you can choose to either lower the sails and wait out the storm, or to meet it headlong and fight. Sometimes the latter course might work; more often than not, the former is the more sensible way to do it.

Leadership has been extensively written about-there are books that tell you how to become a leader, how to continue being a leader, how leadership differs from mere management, how wisdom is gleaned from various great leaders, … the list is endless. There is even a book on leadership for dummies! All basically promise to provide the necessary skills, characteristics or prerequisite steps required to be an effective leader.

But have you ever stopped to think about what you should not do as an effective leader? How to gauge exactly when you need to control, and when you need to let go of that control for the good of the organization? Do you even realize that sometimes you do need to let go? Running an organization, whether large or small, can be compared to steering a ship. So many known and unknown factors have to be weighed and balanced to ensure that the ship does not sink and that it makes progress. When a storm is about to hit, you need to be able to read the warning signs, weigh anchor, and ride out the storm. Similarly, as the leader of an organization, you need to be able to judge how to navigate through all of the external and internal forces that come into play so that the organization moves forward. Of the various aspects of leadership, one of the most important is the delicate balance between navigation and control.

Just as mariners need to navigate through the ocean, knowing when to hoist their sails to take advantage of a strong wind and when to weigh anchor to ride out a hurricane, or when to steer around an obstacle like an island, a leader must be able to interpret all the information about the organization as well as develop an intuitive knowledge of when to forge ahead and when to lie low. Leaders need to constantly chart the course ahead, keep track of possibly dangerous undercurrents, and be careful that he/she is not blown off course by the buffeting winds of an uncertain economy or business environment. At the same time, he/she cannot ignore the larger picture-that of the final destination of the ship.

But business is no longer smooth sailing. Instead, it can be compared to a river-rafting expedition down Class IV rapids, where you might encounter a hidden rock or whirlpool or be sent hurtling over a waterfall. An effective leader needs to be alert to all dangers lurking ahead, and be able to circumnavigate them in a way that does not affect his/her organization.

Now picture your organization as a river that is ever changing, and the employees as the guides whose talents you need to use to the best extent possible, and your customers as the tourists. Your aim is to see that the customers have a smooth ride with your company, and that you and your employees know where the whirlpools and rocks might pop up during the journey. Ideally, your customers should enjoy the experience so much, and feel such a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment, that they come back repeatedly for more.

In the business world, leaders should be able to articulate their vision and goals, and provide direction and execution based on intimate knowledge of the macro-environment in which the organization works. They should be able to navigate and steer the company, be aware of all pitfalls like changing market standards that are out of their control, and use their judgment to be able to get the organization through hard times.

Thus, for a business leader, navigation is having the wisdom of knowing when to control and when to let go.

There are a number of "uncontrollables" that a leader is likely to encounter, such as varying market forces, employees who leave, competition from other companies, and demanding customers. Of course, leaders should also work at reducing the "uncontrollables" as much as they can.

In their article "The Quest for Resilience"1 (Harvard Business Review, September 2003), Gary Hamel and Liisa Valikangas argued that a capacity for continuous, crisis-free renewal is the ultimate competitive advantage in a world of accelerating change. In their view, resilience is about being continually alert to developing trends and forever looking out for new opportunities. We live in turbulent times where nothing can be taken for granted except change. We face complex challenges of new technology, the explosion of knowledge, global markets, diverse workforces and economic and political turmoil and uncertainty. These, although they present us with unlimited opportunities for growth, can also be causes of deep uncertainty and stress. A leader should be able to navigate this chaotic world with a sense of excitement, adjusting easily to all the change that is occurring.

"Companies that ride the currents succeed; those that swim against them usually struggle. Identifying these currents and developing strategies to navigate them are vital to corporate success."2 Every leader must be resilient, prepared to face the storms of adversity, and nimble when it comes to picking up new opportunities. You must accept that you cannot hope to be effective if you wish to be in control at all times and always tries to ensure a certain outcome. If you are blown off course, you should view that as an opportunity to do something new, rather than as a goal that you have failed to reach, and respond by plotting a new course if necessary. When your company is sailing along smoothly in calm waters, don't get lulled into a false sense of security, but use the time to strategize and prepare for the next rapid you might hit. One thing is certain-you will hit one, sooner or later.

The survivors of the 2000-2001 internet bust were those who pulled down their sails, rode the currents, and concentrated on survival. Employees' faith in the long-term success of their companies and their trust in leadership were at an all-time low. However, some leaders acted proactively-they communicated and shared information with employees, setting a vision for the future and rallying the troops. They were able to maintain high levels of employee engagement regardless of the poor business climate. These leaders made it clear that, even though they were not meeting financial and business goals, there was faith in the future and that they would survive the storm. And they did!

Someone once said, "We can't control the wind, but we have the power to adjust the sails." There are many advantages to knowing when to let go of control. It frees you from trying in vain to solve problems that have no solution, so you can focus on what is retrievable from the chaos. You need to recognize that sometimes it makes better sense to just let go.

Leadership provides guidance and direction. Today's leader requires navigation skills to maintain the balance between the skills of their team members, harnessing the strength of each. They also should be able to gauge when they need to step back and let someone else take the lead and, when to assume control again. When the ground is shifting under the company, they need to bring in some sort of change for the better, which might involve a new way of thinking about a particular situation or direction in which to take the company. In tough times, they should be able to return to the basics, the core values of the company, to lie low if necessary, and watch out for new breakthroughs that will take the organization in a positive direction.
How do you identify when to navigate and when to control? Well, you need the right cocktail of intuition, preparedness, and humility, which comes from experience, introspection and analysis-of learning from previous mistakes.

A successful organization is one where the leader is effective and so are the rest of the employees. An employee with the requisite skills can help the leader navigate by pitching in and being proactive when required. At the same time, they should be sensitive to the leader's reactions while doing this. When matters take an unexpected or unwelcome turn for the organization, employees should help look for solutions, and work with the leader to try to chart out how to work around the problem and plot a new course. This attitude could make all the difference between sink or swim for the company.

Thus, control is good; it's essential, but often, letting go of total control and sensibly navigating is the need of the hour. As a leader, you will be effective only if you know how to tread the fine line between the two.

1.Hamel, G. and Valikangas, L. (September, 2003). The quest for resilience. Harvard Business Review (52-63).
2.Ten Trends to Watch in 2006. McKinsey Quarterly. Sourced from the web at http://www.forbes.com/business/2006/01/23/google-economics-trends-cx_0124mckinsey.html

The author is grateful to Shubha Rao Benipuri, Editor, Kenexa, for her contributions to this article.


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