A colleague came into the office recently with a black eye. Sheepishly, she explained the power had gone out when she was in the garage of her new home. She stumbled around in the dark and collided with boxes – Ouch! While not surprising to a visually impaired person, the impact to my colleague was significant because light was suddenly extinguished, and the environment was different: a new home with a new floor-plan, boxes haphazardly stacked, loss of electricity, and the subsequent loss of her sense of vision – a faculty she had relied upon heavily to navigate her space.
Ironically, despite new connectivity and opportunity created by the digital age, evidence of ambiguity and the pace of change is increasing. Bank collapse, downstream investment impacts to the tech industry, territorial conflict initiated by autocrats, a global pandemic, and environmental degradation are just a few examples that have dramatic impacts on the known and knowable ways we operate. These crises may feel local if we’re on the front lines, or they may feel distant if the impacts are subtle and long-term. Regardless, when the customary ways to navigate these changes is compromised – when our vision is disrupted (to extend the metaphor) – we lose the normal navigational tools. Such loss can be much more disruptive in macro-economic or global events than when we find ourselves in the garage in total darkness.
What do we do? If we panic and scramble, we run the risk of bumping into things that are dangerous. In fact, we may make things worse. At the same time, if we stay still until the lights come back on – refuse to make any adjustments – than we’re stuck in the dark until the powers that be can fix the electricity. The metaphor for leadership here is instructive and the parallels are uncanny. Our need to pause, take stock, and heighten our other senses increases if we want to navigate these moments without injury. So does our courage to engage in the new environment if we are ever to escape the dark garage. We are required to leverage new ways of listening, gathering data, and navigating. Interestingly, in my colleague’s case, the boxes in her garage didn’t move – only the power went out. Lack of awareness of her surroundings, coupled with hurried movement, caused injury. Had she slowed down, extended her arms to feel around in the darkness, or even called for help, the black eye might have been averted. In other words, with enough sensitivity and awareness, the changing context need not cause significant injury even if we lose our sight from time to time.
The practice of leadership leads to powerful outcomes, whether proactively moving ourselves and others to new ways of being and doing, or in preventing wholesale injury and destruction. Getting on the balcony to take stock of the changes we encounter need not take significant time. But it does require 1) intention – the ability to pause and proactively move in new ways – and 2) attention – taking stock of the systems we’re a part of to learn new ways of doing. This is proactive response to the world’s many changes that sometimes goes unseen but always leads to preferable downstream outcomes.