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.