Leadership in Times of Chaos

By: | April 17, 2017

Chaos is defined as a state of confusion and a total lack of organization or order. During periods of chaos, everything seems like it’s coming apart, and sometimes it really is coming apart. We are living through a period of extreme unpredictability, paralysis, and dysfunction right now in the United States and globally.

Leading a country, community or an organization through a period of peace and prosperity is easy, but a truly strong leader must rise to the occasion to lead others through the danger and uncertainty of chaos during times of change and upheaval.

Sometimes chaos is thrust upon leaders who may not have the necessary skills to deal with the confusion and conflict. Often leaders who are currently in charge may have been well equipped to steer a company or community during calm waters but they don’t know how to react when the ship hits rough waters. One of the biggest challenges of successfully leading through a time of chaos is that there is usually no roadmap to help organizations or institutions find their way out of random unpredictability or singularly chaotic situations.

Dealing with chaos is a core competency that leaders need. Why? Because we live in a world filled with entrepreneurs who are always trying to find new “disruptive technologies” that will alter our lives in fundamental ways. Based on the evidence of how new software, web applications, and automation have combined to wreak havoc on entire industries, communities, and individuals, it seems that those entrepreneurs aim to keep their promise. Also, we’re in a time of overwhelming philosophical and ideological change around the world and with that comes massive uncertainty and destabilization of global norms. Predictive patterns get thrown out the window as things turn on a dime and global situations erupt uncontrollably.

Many leaders make the mistake of believing that they can wait out the changes, hoping that eventually, the situation will revert to the previous routine. Assuming that everything will just sort itself out is a dangerous path to follow because the situation can get progressively worse unless someone begins to face the new realities. Denial is not an effective strategy. Chaotic times often fill people with a sense of disorientation, helplessness, and grief as they mourn the ways things used to be. This is why an effective leader can’t be one of the people who react in such a way. Indeed, one of the first actions a leader can take during times of change is to rekindle a sense of hope.

Keeping hope alive

Keeping hope alive and remaining positive despite all the surrounding chaos is the first step toward boosting morale and reducing anxiety among your employees, colleagues or citizens.

As Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

The one thing good leaders cannot do is lose faith. Losing faith signals defeat. Sometimes it may seem that there truly is no course of action that can prevent things from falling apart entirely, but even during the most difficult times a good leader signals confidence to the crew that together they can weather the storm. If you are a leader and the ripples of chaos are battering your organization, then you’ll need a network of support. You’ll need people you can lean on to help you manage the weighty responsibility and stress of supporting all of the individuals who are leaning on you.

If you lose faith and hope, the rest of your team will as well. Remaining confident that your organization or community can withstand the adversity it’s facing at the moment is a sure way to actually achieve that goal or at least come much closer to it. A good leader leads by example and does whatever is necessary to keep morale as high as possible during turbulent times. A courageous mindset inspires people to do remarkable things. Sometimes that means just weathering the storm until the sun shines again, sometimes it means taking the next step when everyone else is hiding and waiting for things to get better. Strong leadership is priceless.

Honest communication as an order-restoring tactic

Imagine the captain of a ship. Out of the blue, the storm begins, and the leader needs to take control of the situation and guide the crew to safety. However, the captain has no manual for an effective way of communicating with the team. If the captain communicates with the staff too slowly and the crew misinterprets their instructions, then the captain’s commands can’t be executed in time. In this scenario, the ship will most likely sink.

In a crisis, a leader doesn’t have to know all the answers, but they must be able to acquire them quickly and distribute them to the right crew members in as direct and honest a manner as possible. Don’t lie to your team; people are not stupid and they can usually tell when someone is holding back critical information. Honesty about what you know will earn you a lot of respect and will help the whole team work together as a unit.

Involve your team

Work with your leadership team to identify the crucial information that you lack. After finding out areas of weakness and lack of insight, determine how to make the right decisions and find the fastest way to obtain that information. Don’t try to do too much by yourself; delegate responsibility and include your team members in your plans. By acknowledging the importance of your staff in assessing and responding to the situation, you’ll increase their trust in you and they’ll have a sense of co-ownership of the problems and ultimate solutions.

Misinformed people make bad decisions

One of the greatest dangers of leading in today’s environment is the fact that there are so many half-truths flying around. It’s hard to tell what information presented by senior leaders, the media, and social networks is genuine and what is false or misleading. This lack of clarity about the authenticity of information is a major cause of chaos. Inaccurate data negatively affects strategic decisions that businesses, governments, and institutional leaders make. A small piece of false information can create massive confusion as the impact of bad data ripples throughout society, companies, and organizations.

In today’s social media environment, rumors and falsehoods spread quickly, so it is of utmost importance for leaders to be confident of the validity of the information they communicate. Leaders make decisions based on facts they have in front of them and if a small piece of the puzzle is misleading, the decision can lead to deeper chaos. Get your information right and you will have taken the first step to effective delegation and inspiring, solution-oriented leadership.

In summary, keeping hope alive, providing honest, accurate and regular communications to your employees or community members, and tapping into your support network are some of the actions that you can take if you’re a leader leading in a state of chaos. Seeing the ship through safely to the shore is all about teamwork, but it also takes a good captain who knows the seas.

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