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“Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself?”
Lao Tzu

You want to do something. In the midst of a crisis our first thought is to act or move into solution mode. Sometimes it is better to wait and be patient. Doing nothing is better than doing something that could cause damage over the long term.

There are simple emergencies that require immediate action and complex situations like the pandemic that require time for analysis. Practicing patience for greater understanding and better decision making. Time is the essential ingredient to effective solutions.

Successful leaders are good at reacting to changes that are part of larger cycles that repeat. Crisis events like the current COVID-19 pandemic are events outside of predictable cycles. Traditional leaders are adequate for traditional challenges however in a crisis we need leaders who can thrive in ambiguity.

Many of us reflexively seek out “one best answer” or “an answer” when something different confronts us. In times of uncertainty and unpredictability that taking a pause is the best thing we can do to await for sufficient threads of information to form. Pause and allow time to pass.

Encountering a lethal snake in the woods on a hike is an emergency you can act on, making sense of a pandemic when so much is not known is senseless and potentially damaging to yourself and others.

The current pandemic is a situation that is a tragedy and life threatening however the complexity is beyond the capacities of most of us other than following the recommendations of the Center for Disease Control. Watching endless news cycles with leaders and experts pronouncing one thing after the other and the next day reversing, contradicting themselves is an example of leadership that is more akin to the tail wagging the dog.

In our book, Preparing For A World That Doesn’t Exist-Yet, Rick Smyre and I talk about the role of Master Capacity leadership in times of complexity. Master capacity leaders are comfortable with uncertainty and who anticipate their next moves by sensing emerging patterns and weak signals that are signs of early change and trends. This takes time and a sensitivity to complexity.

So, what to do as a leader?

Pause…and then what?  For most of us who are not front line workers- I recommend:

  1. Watch a variety of news in the morning and evening for a short period (it is mostly repetitive) then turn it off.
  2. Talk with friends and colleagues about what they are thinking and sensing.
  3. Be sensitive to emerging trends or weak signals that suggest a coalescing of random information into considered thought.
  4. Do not look for an answer, in times of complexity there is not a single answer; there are multiple and parallel solutions.
  5. Diversify -the pandemic will alter how we live our lives, embrace networks of diverse people and institutions; seek out greater connection allowing ourselves to thrive in ambiguity and grow into higher levels of complexity.
  6. Don’t do it; we must allow unpredictable events to emerge and reveal themselves. Being the first to say something that is wrong strengthens confusion and creates greater fear.
  7. Embrace what is actually happening, past events are of little help; no one knows yet what to do- it is ok to not know.

There is no crystal ball about how you should act. Your responsibility to yourself and others in times of complexity and chaos is to act appropriately and with considered intelligence. The space between stimulus and action can be transformed into a moment reflection. Our response to the pandemic is going to be a marathon not a sprint. Pace yourself and for goodness sake…be patient.