leading in turbulent times

The light dawned. I was in a meeting with my colleagues, reviewing the rapid changes in our training and consulting business and sorting through our priorities for the coming quarter. We had doubled our already substantial business over the past 18 months. While the growth was exciting, it was also exhausting. We were piling on new programs, services, and organizational changes.

This was some time ago. I don’t recall anything from the meeting except a rich conversation that ensued after I said, “Once we get through this crazy period and things settle down again…” I stopped myself. “Haven’t we been saying that an awful lot lately?” I asked. Heads nodded around the room.

The descriptive phrase “hinge of history” coined by the futurist and writer Alvin Toffler sprang to mind. Way back when, he presented strong evidence to show our world is undergoing a seismic shift. Everything in our lives, business, politics, economics, the environment, and our social structures, is radically changing. Today changes seem to be accelerating.

“I guess we — or at least I — have to get my head around the fact that this crazy period is normal and will be with us for many years to come,” I reflected aloud. This led to an animated conversation. We needed a seismic shift in our thinking. The right approach was not to just plow through change, because a future period of stability is now a myth. Instead, we agreed that we need to see constant, unpredictable, and tumultuous times as a normal and ongoing part of our company’s life.

We need to thrive on and in our turbulent times.

As so often happens when you’re newly attuned to an issue, not long after that meeting, I came across a highly relevant remark from Warren Bennis, when he was Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California. He observed, “I can’t recall a period of time that was as volatile, complex, ambiguous and tumultuous.” He then quoted a top CEO of the day, “If you’re not confused, you don’t know what’s going on.” See: your confusion about our crazy, topsy-turvy times just shows you know what’s going on!

The other possibility — and danger — was identified by the American author and playwright, Jean Kerr, when she suggested, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.”

Have you caught yourself saying things like, “Once we get the new position filled …the restructuring is complete … the project is finished … the new system is installed… I get organized, things will settle down again?” Do things ever settle down? No. And they never will. As I wrote in Nature’s Mighty Law is Change, one of the only places where life no longer changes is… the graveyard.

Turbulence means disorder, chaos, and instability. Turbulent times are unpredictable, disruptive, and confusing. Sound familiar? As the English poet, John Keats, observed, “There is nothing stable in the world; uproar’s your only music.”

While it’s tempting to want stability, predictability, and orderliness, be careful what you wish for. Writer, academic, journalist, and scholar of early modern English literature Germaine Greer warns, “Security is when everything is settled. When nothing can happen to you. Security is the denial of life.”

Often our greatest and most challenging turbulence comes with loss. That might include loss of a loved one, a job, health or mobility, a relationship, finances, certainty, or power and control. “Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight,” Emperor Augustus observed. Although we might like Nature to delight us more gently or less often, loss itself is neither good nor bad; it just is. How we deal with it determines whether it’s good or bad. We can become bitter or better. Turbulence can be the hallmark of the best of times or the worst of times. The choice is ours. We can be groaning or growing at the speed of change.

We pay our taxes. We can even pre-plan our funeral. But how we deal with the third certainty in life will make us victors or victims of change.

To thrive on turbulence is to be vibrantly alive. To avoid turbulence is to wish life away. We must find ways to harness this powerful energy force for positive change throughout our personal and professional lives. We can be riders on the storm.