Within the rhythms of life, the swinging gateway opens and novelty emerges spontaneously to revitalize the world, tempering whatever has moved to an extreme, and reclaiming whatever has strayed from the path. Whatever is most enduring is ultimately overtaken in the ceaseless transformation of things — Tao Te Ching

In the welter of threads that make up the tapestry of our world, we are so very fond of naming each and every single strand. This thread is you. This thread is me. These colorful threads are us. Those drab threads are them. These threads comprise our economic policy, these are our monetary policy, and these here are our regulatory policy. We forget that the threads are all wrapped up with one another, interacting, impacting, and changing one another in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to predict.

Of the threads that make up the science and art of leadership, we do the same. This changeling thread is transformational leadership. This lovely thread is authentic leadership. This one here on the bottom supporting everyone else, this is servant leadership. This thread running throughout an organization and helping to solve problems is adaptive leadership. Even my colleagues who’ve taken up the mantle of complexity science and theory have embraced the practice: This thread, the one that is scanning and anticipating, the one that is empowering the collective and harnessing its intelligence, the one shouldering ambiguity and uncertainty with grace, the one that is collaborating, adapting, and tailoring, this one is complexity leadership.

So be it.

But what of the thread we call crisis leadership — have our enduring notions of what it means to lead in a crisis been overtaken by today’s circumstances? Does our understanding and our practice of it need to change? Let’s pull on some threads and find out, shall we?

We asked a group of experts — academics, business leaders, and practitioners, all alumni of the University of Oxford Said Business School and HEC Paris, their thoughts on the subject, starting with, “What do we mean when we say ‘crisis,’ and what kind of crisis might we be experiencing right now?”

Of course, what rocks one person back on his or her heels might be but a nuisance to the next. I remember my mom once left a casserole on the stove for us boys, my dad included, to eat. Ah, but the dish tasted like what I’d imagine roadkill to taste like. What to do? This was the only dinner we had — a veritable crisis indeed. But my dad just shrugged and said, “I can fix this.” He opened up the fridge, grabbed a bottle of ketchup, and squeezed a liberal amount into the questionable casserole, mixed it all up with a wooden spoon, and voilà! The casserole was now more than just edible, it was delicious. Crisis averted by Dad, who never once sweated, and Heinz. Personal leadership behavior combined with a ready-made technology (ketchup) to avert disaster — or at least hunger.

What about a firefight — the exchange of rockets, bombs, bullets, and enmity between two peoples bent on destroying each other? Some might call that a crisis. It can be a bit unnerving. But I have been in those situations where I’m sure had I measured the breathing and heart rates of my teammates, they would not have budged much beyond the normal range. The bullets whizzing by were no real cause for concern. But what if I took those same steady teammates and put a ticking bomb in front of them. Would they react so calmly? Probably not. They would likely, and rapidly, call for the explosive ordnance disposal expert — another teammate, and one who might not be quite as comfortable in the gunfight but thinks nothing of the ticking time bomb in front of him. Just another day at the counterterrorism office.

What’s going on here is rather simple: Mastery in any domain can help us avert a crisis or keep us from framing an event as a crisis in the first place — so long as the crisis occurs in that domain. If it does, then mastery is a resource we can draw upon to mitigate the stressors in the environment and put us back on the path to recovery. In other words, an event or series of events is only a crisis, or often only framed as a crisis, if mastery is not an option in averting or solving it. As such, true crises are typically novel in some way, if only to the participants directly involved.

Hearken back to the Great Recession of 2008. It was a systemic banking crisis that came about because of emergent circumstances (or emergent greed?) brought on by new, or novel, deregulation, which then precipitated an economic crisis. Lots of things coincided in the economy, some novel and some not, that put us in a Clooney-esque “tight spot.” (See “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou”). “Lots of things coincided” is just my imprecise way of suggesting yet another aspect of an emerging crisis: turbulence or volatility. But in 2008 the turbulence — and the mess — stopped there, at the economy.

Today, no systemic banking failure exists (although such a failure remains a possibility, even if only remotely). Instead, we have a healthcare crisis that has precipitated an economic and geopolitical crisis as well. A lack of supply (of tests and PPE mainly) has led, strangely, to a lack of demand. Businesses are failing because people are staying at home. Talk about entanglement, only in this case it’s turbulence and novelty, not subatomic particles, that are all tangled up. This is Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance,” but that distance is now at arm’s length. It’s on our doorsteps, in our nursing homes and hospitals, in our places of work, worship, and study. And yet no mastery to untangle the mess exists, or if it does, it’s in short supply, which only adds to the uncertainty and the ambiguity.

And therein lies the broad framing of a crisis. This is known to us — it’s old hat, as it were. Some call it VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous). Some say TUNA (Turbulent, Uncertain, Novel, Ambiguous), if only because VUCA is redundant. “Complex” necessarily entails volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Regardless of the term we choose, though, we are saying the same thing regarding a crisis: a situation that is to varying degrees turbulent or volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, and novel. Those are the threads — the ones we can see and conceive of anyway.

To be sure, there are other threads, or aspects in our environment, that we don’t see or can’t see or don’t want to see that also contribute to not only the framing of a crisis but to the emerging crisis itself. For instance, several economists presaged the financial crisis of 2008. And Bill Gates did the same in 2015 when he declared, in a speech, that it would not be a nuclear war that upended us but a pandemic. And Ian Goldin, the former VP of the World Bank, predicted not only a pandemic, but an economic crisis as a result of it. In none of these cases, though, did any of these budding Nostradamuses know the details of the impending crisis. They glimpsed an emerging trajectory, and they anticipated vague outcomes, but they couldn’t see the nitty-gritty. Ah, this is complexity: We’ll never accurately see the long-term details, but those among us — in our families, teams, companies, countries, and planets (heck, why not?) — those with the gift and skill of fore-sighting and anticipating are worth their weight in gold several times over.

But why didn’t we listen to them? The signals were there, so why did we miss them? Was it merely because the signals were too weak to rise above the noise? Maybe. That’s certainly part of it. But it is also because the whole of who we are, as individuals and collectives, decided those signals and those prophets were unimportant. The “why” of it — why we, or many of us, deemed those signals irrelevant — is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, though, that as we attempt to make sense of our experiences and the situations we find ourselves in, we each of us tend to see and hear not only what we want to see and hear but what our social networks want to see and hear as well. Our narratives, as compelling as they can be, as uplifting as they can be, sometimes not only limit what’s imaginable and achievable but also what’s believable and worthy of our attention. And it takes a heady degree of collective wisdom, courage, mindfulness, and humility to overcome those biases.

You’ll see these words again — wisdom, courage, mindfulness, humility, and collective— as they comprise some of the inner tools of leadership that, imperfect as they are, can help us prepare for and lead through a crisis, regardless of how we frame it. They are the focus of future articles in this series.

But for now, the biases such inner tools help us manage also wend their way into our framing of a crisis. I have suggested TUNA as a broad means of framing what is and what is not a crisis. And I have suggested there are other threads as well, other variables, some that we see and some we do not, like Bill Gates’s warning. And of the variables we see — time horizons and constraints, the degree of immediacy in our actions, the complexity of the ramifications of the crisis or lack thereof, and the role that inequality plays, as the poor and minorities are often disproportionately affected—for all of these variables and more, our personal and cultural biases will dictate their order of importance. This is Aristotle’s pathos — the preconceptions of the spectators, those who are the recipients of the message. And mixed up in all that diversity, in all those many threads, are the seeds of both solution and conflict. I suppose that means we can add paradox to the threads as well.

Even our perceptions of the damage a crisis might engender are dictated, to some extent, by our biases. Those in the throes of an optimism, outcome, or normalcy bias might suggest opening up the economy and going back to school and work pronto, as that “2% death toll” isn’t that bad. Moreover, bad things only happen to other people — the “thems.” While others wrestling with attentional or interpretive biases might suggest heading for hills because the whole thing is about to come crashing down.

Unfortunately, there’s no single person or group with the mastery to tell us how to frame a crisis. I sometimes wish there were. Instead, we look to people we trust to help us with that. And that’s fine — we all do it. If you believe Bill Gates manufactured this virus in 2015 to further his other business interests, so be it. But we should all do ourselves a favor when it comes to framing: Challenge it. And when new information comes in, we should continue to challenge how we are framing the crisis in light of that new information. And we should resist setting out to confirm or prove that our framing of the situation is correct; instead, we should set out to disconfirm it. Challenge your assumptions and look for alternative sources and explanations. Hopefully, you will judge those sources based on the science behind them, science that includes not only results and conclusions (which can be manufactured or misconstrued) but methodology and limitations as well. And beware the extremes — find the virtue of the middle ground, as vast and shifting (and uncomfortable) as that middle ground may be.

A personal story: In 2011, when I was “read in” to the bin Laden mission — to the fact that bin Laden was holed up in Abbottabad that is, I went up to one of the lead analysts and asked, “What have you done to disconfirm that it’s him?” I did that because it’s so easy to confirm our biases — too easy. And this mission wasn’t my first bin Laden rodeo. The very first time we went after him, nearly 10 years prior, the decision was made to drop cluster bombs on the “tall guy wearing white robes,” a decision that was made despite the protests of the operators. The outcome — as a result of the oldest bias in the books, the confirmation bias — was a score of dead women and children. And the tall guy wearing white robes, also dead, was only tall because the people around him, the women and the children that is, were so short. We see what we want to see, or, as we sometimes say, “Believing is seeing.”

So in 2011 when I questioned the lead analyst, I was pleasantly surprised when she unfurled a laundry list of things she and the team of analysts had done to disconfirm that the man in the compound was bin Laden. Each of their attempts failed, leaving all of us, though, with a framing we could work with: There was a man cloistered in that compound who was, for various reasons, very likely Osama bin Laden. Not 100 percent, but very likely. The rest of that uncertainty, to include what the Pakistanis might do if they caught us in their backyard, the guys on the ground could deal with through the responsible use of their own mastery.

Framing matters, but how you get there matters, too. And that framing, then, becomes the platform for action. And as the crisis unfolds during that critical period and new insights are gleaned and the framing of the situation is adapted, so to must our actions be changed and adapted.

Alas, change is hard.

In the next article, we’ll address the kinds of approaches to leadership that are useful in a crisis.

Contributors: Rachel AmatoDarine NajemRoberto SacoUte BockMark Clark

Editors’ note: If you wish to contribute to the Change Leaders Lab, please contact us at editors@thechangeleaders.com. We’d like to hear what you have to say.

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WRITTEN BY: 

Dave Cooper
Dave is a former Navy SEAL, proud member of the Change Leaders, and the founder of Verge. He specializes in facilitating change for organizations big and small.