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This episode is being recorded the day after the historic inauguration of the 46th President of the United States. And the feeling that that engendered across most of the free world was probably best summarized by Pete Buttigieg, who ran against Biden in the democratic primaries. He said in a tweet, “Just imagine turning on the TV, seeing your president, and feeling your blood pressure go down instead of up.” If ever we needed an indicator of the power of leadership and its ability to influence feelings and emotions, yesterday was a prime example.
But leadership is not just about emotions and feelings. It’s rather a delicate balance between feelings and actions. And the new president wasted no time in taking action. In that, on his first day at work, he signed 15 Executive Orders, making a very clear statement about policy and direction.
Last episode focused on setting ourselves up for the year and our personal PPE as leaders. And one of those P’s, which was the Priorities and setting priorities, seem to resonate with people. And there’ve been a number of requests to elaborate on that. So given the time of year where we’re all taking stock, and we’re all trying to prioritize and plan, and determine that 2021 is going to be a better year than last year, I thought it would be worthwhile dwelling and focusing on the art and the act of planning and prioritizing for this episode.
I had occasion in the last week to visit the office, our headquarters in Temple Bar, Dublin. And on my visit I came across the outputs and the post-it’s from our company planning session for 2020, around this time last year. When I look at it now, armed with the value and wisdom of hindsight of what’s happened during the last year, the aspirations, the focus, the objectives seem almost risible.
The temptation of course, is to take away the conclusion that because things are so uncertain, there’s no point in planning. It couldn’t be further from the truth. The counterintuitive irony is that, the greater the level of uncertainty that we have or that we experience, the more critical it is that we create our plans and our priorities and we’re clear about them.
Priorities bring much needed order to the chaos. And the greater the level of chaos, the more requirement there is for transparency and order. And it brings us down to the central tenant of the leadership contribution. The leadership contribution is based on just two things. The first is the need to set the direction. And the second is to get buy in to that direction.
So for the rest of the episode, in the context of setting priorities and planning, I’m going to talk about three things. The first is, why the need to plan. Secondly is, why leaders find it difficult, particularly during this chaos. And thirdly, what are some of the guidelines for how to set really decent priorities?
So. The first question is why to plan. Well the short non-facetious answer to the question is that there’s not really an option to do nothing. And even if the leader does nothing, people will do something. So the only real question is, do what? And that’s what the leader needs to begin to describe and define.
The second reason to plan and prioritize is very simply back to people’s primal fears. Where we experience uncertainty and chaos, the impact on us as human beings is we feel the impact or the feeling that we’ve lost control. And it’s one of the core foundational fears that we have as human beings is that we don’t have control. So we continually need to create this illusion of control. By having no clear direction, no clear priorities, and no clear parameters, then this fear is only exaggerated and exacerbated and it results in chaos. And it activates the primal brain, which is fear-based and totally irrational, which leads to residue which, as a leader, is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to create.
So by setting and by being explicit and clear about direction, it helps people to focus. And by breaking that into plans, activities, and priorities, it gives people something to move towards. When we’re in a fear-based state, we tend to want to move away from the things that we don’t want, which triggers a primal-brain response.
As a leader by setting clear objectives, priorities, and plans and actions to deliver those priorities, it gives us, as humans, something to move towards. Which in turn activates the thinking brain, which is where all our brilliant capability is and resides and enables us to come up with wonderful solutions. But it starts by having something, a target, to aim at so we can direct and channel that thinking capacity, that problem solving capacity in a very powerful and meaningful way.
Why do leaders find it hard? Well, the very first reason that leaders find it difficult is that we are subject to the same terms and conditions of humanity as all non-leaders, which is we have the same fears and exasperations and concerns as everybody else. And the truth is we’re in a situation where there’s no blueprint. And the response to that very typically is we fight, we freeze, or we flee. So what I frequently see, and currently see out there, are lots of leaders who are either procrastinating, or if they are doing something, the something that they’re doing is incoherent or inconsistent.
It is the most human of experiences and feelings to feel stuck at times like these of maximum chaos and uncertainty. So, to be self-compassionate about last week I shared during the PPE episode, a very simple exercise to help people get unstuck around priorities, which you can go back to an indulge again, if you haven’t already.
The second reason why leaders find it difficult, or find it hard, to set direction and priorities is because there are no right answers. Many organizations and their leaders come from a background where the key definition of being a leader, and the success factor and the measurement for it, was having the right answers all the time. Well, it’s not a great time for that type of culture.
In a previous life, in parallel, I was heavily involved in the racing industry, which is very closely wedded to betting and gambling. Interestingly enough, even professional gamblers who make a living from their endeavors will tell you that about 70% of the bets that they make are wrong. But, just because we make bets in terms of our decisions all the time, and ultimately they might prove to be unfounded or they might be the wrong ones in hindsight, it doesn’t mean that we stop making bets. Every time we decided to create a priority, or we set a direction, or we choose a task to do, which by definition means not doing some other things, we’re making a bet. And many times it’s not going to work exactly the way we imagined it. But it doesn’t mean that we stop making decisions and we stop making priorities. Because we’ll either be right, in which case we win, or alternatively, if we’re wrong, we learn. We either win or we learn.
Final question is, what’s the best method for setting priorities, setting objectives, planning? Well, it follows the three C’s as I define them, which are Context, Coherence, and Credibility. The Context element of setting direction is about the, “Why?” Answering the question, “Why are we doing this?”, “Why are we doing this and not that?”, “Why are we choosing to do, in all of the range of things that we could do, this over that?” One of the things that that forces the leader to do is to think very, very deeply. And in an environment where were induced to be reactive and to be busy, it’s one of the first casualties very often from a leadership perspective. But the value of thinking deeply about the situation and asking the question “Why?” has a massive dividend to pay at the end because it creates a clarity in our own minds. It causes us to think about some of the underlying assumptions that we have about the decisions that we’re making and the choices that we’re making, because after all, everything is a choice. So understanding that as part of our context is another critical ingredient.
And finally, in terms of creating context, what is the payoff if we’re right? So if we make these choices and we take this path and we pursue this direction, what is the payoff? What’s the dividend ultimately? Because what that means is it, defines for us something that people are induced and motivated to move towards.
As Charles Handy says, a leader sets a vision, in this case direction, that gives point to the work of others. Which plays into the whole idea of if it has a payoff and it has a dividend, then it’s most likely to be inspirational for other people. So that’s context. The second criteria for setting direction is, it needs to be coherent.
So whatever the plans are, whatever the actions are, whatever the tasks are, whatever the projects are, whatever we’re choosing. When you add it all together, it needs to add up to a coherent whole. One of the most common complaints we hear all the time from non-leaders in organizations, and this isn’t just in times of chaos like these, is that the strategy doesn’t make sense. There are many, many components to it. There are many, many parts of it, but when you add them all together, does it create one unified whole that makes sense and is coherent to other people?
And thirdly, the direction needs to be credible. Okay. We want to endorse people taking a moonshot, but somewhere within the pursuit of the moonshot, there needs to be a strategy, a direction, a set of credible tasks and activities that people believe that they can do at a stretch. It doesn’t mean that they need to be able to do it or have the capability to do it at this moment, but that it’s reasonable that with some level of stretch, they will be able to pursue. And if they do pursue and achieve it, that it will reach the goal or the target that we set. So it needs to be credible to those who are going to follow it.
If it’s too easy, people will to be de-motivated. If it’s too challenging or too unrealistic, people will be de-motivated. Either side of that credibility piece, it needs to be somewhere in the middle. And when you do that, you put people into a state of Flow. Which is a topic that we will talk about at some other point in another episode, which is the state of maximum and peak performance.
Ultimately put these three things together, the context, the coherence, and the credibility to your path and your direction, and what you do is you play into the second part of the role of the contribution of leadership, which is to engage people in a way that gets them to buy in. Because ultimately, who decides if it’s the right context or if it’s coherent or if it’s credible? Well, it’s not about our good intentions as leaders. It’s about the impact it has on others. And it’s either inspirational or it’s the opposite.
So all this said, if you’re still not convinced that planning and prioritizing in this environment is the right thing that I do have an alternative. Many years ago, JD Rockefeller, who was the richest oil tycoon in the world was asked by a reporter for his secret to success in life. Rockefeller thought about it for a minute. And he said there were three things you need to do in life in order to be successful. You need to go to bed early. You need to get up early. And you need to strike oil.
If there’s any way in which you can apply this formula and find a way to strike oil, I highly recommend it. You’ll save yourself an awful lot of time and energy.
One final point is there are other episodes previously recorded that elaborate on some of the elements that we’ve talked about during this episode. For example, things like motivation and the leadership contribution. And details of these are listed in the narrative in wherever you download your podcasts.
Until next time. Stay safe. Stay sane, stay connected.
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