Mayvin_Leadership principles

Three leadership principles for uncertain times

If planning alone won’t cut it, what else can we count on in these uncertain times? Mayvin Director Martin Saville sets out three key leadership principles for navigating change.

Well, this has been a funny old year, hasn’t it? Predictably unpredictable. It’s anyone’s guess what will happen to the UK’s relationship with the EU, along with who will be Prime Minister next year and who will be in government. As for house prices and the economy… And that’s before we take a more world-wide perspective, which sees Brexit as a side-show to more pressing geopolitical matters. With all of that in the mix, what could help you lead in such complex and challenging times?

A ‘chaos and complexity’ mindset is helpful here. Viewed through this lens, we have to spot patterns and do our best to influence and respond to what is happening in an iterative, experimental but purposeful kind of way. Civil Servants tell me they have lost count of the number of detailed scenarios for which they are planning and that their work at the moment is all about organising to respond helpfully to uncertainty.

This makes sense to me. It doesn’t mean that planning goes out the window; but it suggests that rather than get wedded to our plans or seeing them as an end in themselves, we see them as a tool for doing the necessary, rigorous groundwork that will enable us to move skilfully with whatever the world throws at us. Plans are useless, so the adage goes, but planning is invaluable.

This is challenging: one of the roles that a plan plays psychologically is to provide a bulwark against the anxiety and discomfort that the sense of ‘not-knowing-what’s-going-to-happen-next’ and of ‘not-trusting-myself-to-handle-what-comes-at-me’ can produce. Valuing the planning process over the concrete plan takes that bulwark away.

What else could give us reassurance? How about our relationships, both professional and personal? Or our competence? Our values? Our sense of who we are and what we stand for? Unlike a plan, which can be swept away when emerging reality doesn’t fit our models and assumptions, these things are internal to us: no-one can take them away. They do however take time, and courage, to develop and cultivate.

What might all this look like in practice for leaders? We’ve boiled it down to three principles based on our work with some amazing people in the Civil Service. They:

1. confront and work with their anxiety about change
This takes courage but it is essential to creating real, lasting change. Simple steps can make a powerful difference to helping you deal with the discomfort of newness and change, as our associate Pete Burden shows us in his blog on how to become a truly digital leader.

2. identify their responsibilities and work out how to act ethically in the moment of unfolding events
This is one of the ideas explored in Organisation Development: A Bold Explorer’s Guide, published this year and written by Mayvin Director James Traeger and Rob Warwick, Reader in Management and Organisational Learning at the University of Chichester. The book challenges the received building blocks of Organisation Development, putting the curious, reflexive individual at the heart of their own development.

3. pay attention to the people side of change
Where change is being delivered successfully, somebody, somewhere is attending to what goes on below the surface in their organisation. When it comes to creating real change in organisations, plans, models, tools and techniques are not enough: people matter too.  In his OD&D for Real blog, consultant Tony Nicholls points to the mindset and associated set of capabilities that successful change agents demonstrate in supporting change.

It takes a lot to apply these principles well. In my next blog I will explore further how you can develop the capacity to do this. In the meantime, as we approach the turn of the year and look ahead to what will surely be a dramatic 2019, I’m left with a sense of gratitude. Whatever you think of our politics and politicians, our country is being run by a Civil Service whose skill and dedication is second to none.