Saturday, February 28, 2009

Leadership used to be about certainty; now it's about leading in uncertainty

Just finished reading the book "Just Enough Anxiety" by psychologist Robert Rosen.

As I read it, it became clear how many of the leaders and coaches featured on this blog over the last year fit Rosen's description of today's "successful leaders."

As I read the following excerpt, I thought about how coaching and the business of basketball has changed over the 20 years that I've been a coach and for the 40 years I watched my father coach.

As the author describes, there's considerably more uncertainty in basketball today than ever before, which makes his model relevant for coaches and GMs.


Fear has been with us since the beginning of time -- the guardian of our survival. Fear kept our ancestors from becoming some predator's dinner. It alerted generation after generation to situations that threatened their survival. It keeps us from walking down dark alleys at night. Sometimes fear propels us forward; sometimes it freezes us in our tracks.

Your relationship with fear -- and its cousin, anxiety -- has a profound effect on your life. It shapes how you see yourself and others, and how others see you. It influences how you think about problems and make decisions. It affects how you view and manage change.

It's a key factor in how you lead teams.

Fear and anxiety are what we experience when we go through life on autopilot. But we can no longer allow ourselves to operate this way. Leadership used to be about certainty. Now it's about leading in uncertainty.

Successful leaders stay ahead of the game by either shaping their world to suit themselves or quickly adapting to the world around them. Leading people through change is every leader's job. It's about taking people from where they are to where they need to be. And it's about the courage and commitment to drive and sustain change.

Following are the five characteristics of today's successful leaders.

1. Successful leaders willingly travel into the unknown. They take uncertainty in stride. In fact, they enjoy the challenge that constant change provides.

2. Successful leaders set an evolving course through ambiguity, complexity, and change. They turn uncertainty and adversity into advantages. They are willing to change their minds and their course of action when necessary. They steer and support others through change after change with a sense of urgency. Simultaneously optimistic and realistic, they risk failure in pursuit of success.

3. Successful leaders inspire and challenge people to perform beyond their own expectations. They are relationship builders. They align people around a shared vision -- with honest and open dialogue -- and open hearts. Comfortable with conflict and disagreement, these leaders foster dynamic debate and constructive impatience. They get people involved by earning their confidence and trust. Their empathy and compassion for others allows them to stretch people into their discomfort zones, while igniting their passion to win. Their ability to motivate, coach, and develop leaders at all levels enables them to build a culture of accountability and execution.

4. Successful leaders learn and re-learn in real time. They are willing to reinvent themselves and their organizations to adapt to change. They see lifelong learning as a priority and themselves as teachers and learners. They see both success and failure as good teachers.

5. Successful leaders imagine possibilities, discover opportunities, and release creative energies inside their organizations. They refuse to accept the status quo. There's always a new goal to reach or a new opportunity to grab. These leaders are masterful at accessing and channeling energy, in themselves and others. They push boundaries. They create excitement.

One capability makes it possible for leaders to succeed at these key tasks. It is the capability to live with and create just enough anxiety within themselves and others. More than any other leadership quality, this ability propels great leaders to the top.

It enables them to embrace uncertainty and manage the ups and downs of a crazy world. It brings out their best performance, enables them to build great teams, and inspires and challenges their organizations. It is the hidden driver of success.