In 1990, John Kotter published his classic paper “What Leaders Really Do” in the Harvard Business Review. Central to the piece he distinguished between managers and leaders, somewhat controversial at the time. Such distinctions were met with skepticism; thought of as useless. Today, we rely on Kotter’s work as an important building block when navigating the leadership terrain:

  • Managers optimize the current paradigm and cope with complexity.
  • Leaders create new paradigms and cope with change.

I recall in 2001 when redesigning the graduate program in Organizational Leadership at Mercy College, some faculty bristled at the use of Kotter’s word “cope.” Our program was rooted in the business school and “coping” didn’t seem very business-like. Ultimately, I relented and used another term. But Kotter’s chosen word is most revealing and relevant.

To cope is to employ emotional, functional or problem-solving strategies that can adapt to or reduce stress. As a term, skillful coping involves facing responsibilities or difficulties, especially successfully, in a calm manner. Today, we all struggle with coping, just to get through the day.

Leaders and Change

While leaders and managers must cope with complexity, a leader’s primary function is to cope with change. And today that includes the trendy term, VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) to explain the nature of change. Leaders are tasked with envisioning the scope of change, scaling in the face of change, enrolling support and communicating the urgency for change.

Clearly, the literature on leading and leadership emphasizes the dynamics of change. But the fallout and impact of change on humans, which can be unsettling and unpredictable, remains an afterthought.

We are confronted by a range of volatile change: absorbing new technology, using smarter devices, upgrading systems, engaging multiple communication platforms, collaborating across cultures, and communicating through conflict. The pace and volatility of change have increased stress and anxiety.

Beyond securing results, increasing performance, and executing on strategy, leaders must also become a source of relief and cultivate support. The onslaught of VUCA requires greater facility with a kind of skillful coping to leverage change. Fundamentally, leaders must first develop a capacity to cope with their own setbacks, confusion, and disorientation. Through mindful practices that focus attention and cultivate wisdom they can then become a trusted source of skillful coping for their colleagues.

Loss of Identity and Leadership

Two aspects of change persist, however: the impact of uncertainty and ambiguity on our identity. Our inability to predict certainty leads to internal ambiguity, doubt, and insecurity. The notion of an identity crisis — a once-in-a-lifetime event around mid-life — can now confront us several times, beginning much earlier in life.

We become disoriented.

Four common areas of identity – politics, religion, gender, and career – often moor our sense of self, and can evolve or shift in the face of constant change. A quick glance at our popular culture and media, and we find these notions in flux. Politics is fragmented, marked by extremes; spirituality expands our notion of religion; gender is more fluid; and, careers have a shorter shelf-life.

Such ambiguity extends beyond the workplace into personal, cultural and societal domains. And yet, for many these shifts all converge in the professional space. Many of us find ourselves questioning our purpose, losing agency, outgrowing relationships, and without direction. What is our role? What do we believe? How do we act or relate? How do we communicate?

Ambiguity can be disconcerting. We can find the ground dissolving beneath us. Once certain routines become counterproductive, solid beliefs are questioned, stable communication platforms are disrupted, reliable plans crumble, and roles which were clear become incoherent.

The world appears disjointed and confusing. We experience conflicting emotions, insecurities, and heightened anxiety. And in the midst of such ambiguity we are expected to remain calm, clear, consistent and of course productive.

So then what is a leader to do?

The Primacy of Skillful Coping

The focus on change – envisioning, creating, scaling or responding to it – must now include the notion of skillful coping with change. In the face of drastic change, leaders are now called to be healers, stewards, and teachers – judged by their level of openness rather than cleverness. These are not the roles for which most have been trained or developed. Speaking gives way to listening; telling gives way to showing; fixing gives way to developing.

In the face of drastic change leaders are now called to be healers, stewards, and teachers – judged by their level of openness rather than cleverness.

Today meaning-making is as important as is facts and forecasts. The way a person absorbs change and interprets facts impacts desired outcomes. Purpose, values, vision, the pace of change and enrolling support have become as important as resource allocation and economic calculations.

The grid below offers three evolving mindsets. Each expands to include the previous mindset of skillful coping. As change has evolved, skillful coping has grown from strategies and practices to cultivating wisdom and meaning-making that deepens listening as reliable and consistent support for others.

skillful coping grid

Click to Enlarge

Disruptive Change Rewrites Leadership

But the dynamics of change often dominate its impact. We focus on change as a market-driven tactic or leadership technique, while belying its fallout, or the level of coping required to absorb change. Our Zeitgeist today, unfortunately, fetishizes and misconstrues “disruption,” reducing it to a tactic, or competitive advantage — rather than a significant context. Disruption is descriptive as a state of change NOT predictive as a leadership technique, or a competitive advantage.

Entrepreneurs and owners do not need to become disruptive to get ahead; instead, they must learn to cope with disruptive environments. Indeed, becoming mindful in the face of disruption offers consistency, not chaos; calm rather than become part of the calamity. “On a boat in the middle of one great storm, one wise calm person can bring everyone to safety,” states Joseph Goldstein in his tome, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening.

Consider Tim Cook at Apple or Travis Kalanick at Uber; hedge fund manager, Martin Shkreli (Pharma Bro) or Starbucks chair, Howard Schultz; former President Barack Obama or current President Donald Trump. Which of these would you choose to work with during tumultuous times?

Leaders as Servants

The nature of change has indeed changed. Skillful coping requires another kind of leader. We are evolving beyond concepts, and strategies to create and execute change, to leadership as a field of caring, to cope with the fallout of change and unpredictability of human coping.

Leaders are called to observe mindfully, listen deeply, learn wholly, and shape perceptions in ways that expand, include, and offer a sense of stability and steadiness. Our chaotic and erratic world with fungible knowledge, demands wise and calming leadership sourced by a solid core — a Servant Leader.

Research by Jim Collins distinguished Level Five Leaders and opened this leadership territory newly – beyond the confines of intelligence and EQ. There, he discovered wise leaders that integrate the healer, teacher, and steward as servant. In a significant white paper for Conscious Capitalism The Future of Leadership –Barrett Brown, Ph.D. details the leadership development that can mark our path forward.

We’ve grown since Collins detailed that black box 15 years ago with Level Five leaders. We are revisiting, revising, and writing new stories that appreciate an inquiry into coping with change. The future of organizational life depends on servants that lead mindfully in the face of change with compassion and wisdom.

We can become Servant Leaders through skillful coping with the fallout of change as it impacts the human condition. We have some classics and newer resources to (re)consider and explore this phenomenon: Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf; Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest by Peter Block; Leading without Power, by Max De Pree; Conscious Business by Fred Kofman; SQ21-Spiritual Intelligence by Cindy Wigglesworth; the Courage to Teach or Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer; Presence, by Peter Senge, et al; and Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies by Otto Scharmer.

Reading Time: 6 min. Digest Time: 8 min.

To join our Learning Community, CLICK HERE to receive our Wisdom Weekly Digest.

Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.