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Looking back, Leading forward

Three capacities to help you navigate the crisis

In times of uncertainty, it’s good to think about what we do know and what we don’t know. We are hearing people saying that they are feeling weary (these dark nights don’t help do they!) and if you are feeling weary, then your people are feeling that too. We don’t know when this will end, and what it might look like when it does. So as leaders trying to navigate ourselves and others through it is our most important challenge.

Making sense of advice

In writing this piece, our aim was to figure out how best to help our clients do this - to successfully navigate ‘Round 2’ of life under COVID. We distilled ideas drawn from the vast amount of leadership material available and added insights from clients who’ve been sharing anecdotes since early lockdown. The goal was to pull together a simple set of core skills for leading in uncertainty; not an exhaustive list, but more of an “If I only focus on one thing…” type of list. Our starting point? The idea that change starts from within.

What follows is our take on how to help you and your teams to get through the next 6 months and beyond. Our suggestion is to take your time, stop and think about where you are with each area and where you want to focus.

I, We and It

Pre-COVID, a lot of leadership experts focused on the skills needed to thrive in a world of new technology, 24/7 news, social media, economic turbulence…the list is endless. But the point is this: things feel uncertain, and 2020 feels like uncertainty on steroids and who knows what 2021 will hold.

Many of you are familiar with the I, We and It of leadership, and it’s a good way to think about the evolving nature of leading from within. I is about developing self-awareness and resilience. We is about empathy and collaboration (inside and outside your organisation). It is about understanding and clarity (Adapted from Ken Wilber: Integral Life).

The I of leadership: Self-awareness and Resilience.

“Be you – everyone else is already taken” – Oscar Wilde.

In the words of Otto Scharmer (writing in The Essentials of Theory U): “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener”. In other words, self-awareness is the foundation stone for leading and managing change. When our world is shaken, we often find ourselves reverting to habitual behaviour patterns – some of which do us no favours! Understanding who we are, and how we respond, helps to jolt us out of autopilot.

Let’s look at a recent client example. A global exec in technology who’s a great delegator (and leads a huge team), realised that the pressure of remote working was triggering his rescuer mode. He described one instance where he needed to get a deck ready for an important Board update. The team created something quite detailed and techy and instead of coaching the team to do it differently; he took it off them and worked on it himself. Consequently, his teams weren’t learning to take responsibility for themselves and weren’t developing the muscle to deal with crisis. This exec is now learning to pause, step back, notice when this is happening and take more of a coaching approach. In doing so, he’s learning how to manage the uncomfortable voice in his head urging him to launch a rescue mission. We all have a negative voice lurking in our heads and resilience means learning to control it, so that it doesn’t become overwhelming.

Three tips on developing your self-awareness and resilience:

  • Take time to think about your interactions. If an imminent conversation is making you feel apprehensive, set time aside to think about what you want to say and how you want to say it.

  • Slow down and notice your own reaction patterns. If you feel uncomfortable (perhaps you think someone is being overly critical of your work), you’re likely to become defensive. If a protective fight or flight mode kicks in, try to calm your breathing down and collect your thoughts. A good strategy is to respond with a question – perhaps ask your colleague “What were you looking for?” and move the conversation onto a collaborative footing.

  • Take time to stick with new habits, even if they make you feel uncomfortable. Part of being resilient is learning as you go and dusting yourself off after an initial failure. Honesty is a powerful attribute in a leader, and people usually respond well when others admit they don’t have all the answers.

The We of leadership: empower and empathise; collaborate and influence

“Individually we are one drop; but together we are an ocean.” – Ryunosoke Satoro.

As we saw in our Exec example earlier, at times of crisis, our natural inclination is to batten down the hatches to create a sense of safety and certainty to protect ourselves and those around us. In Jennifer Garvey Berger’s words (from her book Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps) this means that even more than usual, we can get “trapped by our need for control” which “strips us of the influence needed to truly effect change”. But crisis situations both require, and provide some of the most valuable opportunities, for us as leaders to pull down some of these defences and relinquish some of that control to empower those around us and widen our circles.

We know from recent client conversations that it can be tricky to hit the right balance between offering emotional and practical support, and empowering people by giving them control. Yet learning to cultivate a sense of empathy and understanding makes all the difference – especially since we all have our own ways of dealing with change. In the words of the UK’s Mental Health Foundation, “We are all the same storm, but we have different boats”. For some people, a crisis brings out their best qualities and enables them to thrive; for others it’s super-daunting. Some people like to take a backseat, some chafe against being ‘protected’ and would rather being given extra responsibility. The key is in reading the situation and finding the balance - calibrating our instinct to empower/control.

We also have to challenge our instinctive need to know all the answers. Some of the leaders we’ve seen weather this storm for their organisations most deftly, and in some cases even thrive, are those who have been quick to recognise the difference between the things that they are able to control, and those they are able to influence. They have focused time and effort on broadening their sphere of influence and brought in experts to help them respond nimbly to emerging problems which require them. And, they have intentionally worked outside their own circles, to help them innovate.

Three tips on empowering, collaborating and influencing

  • Have the courage to give some control over to your teams – empathise but don’t disempower by keeping everything to yourself

  • Be honest and accepting of what is in your sphere of control and what is in your sphere of influence and act on this

  • Step outside your usual circles and get new perspectives to help you innovate

The It of leadership: Understand the problem and commit to action (Know your knowns and unknowns and take steps forward)

We prefer simple stories that often blind us to the complexities of a real one” Jennifer Garvey-Berger

We have seen the events of this year add uncertainty and complexity to nearly every aspect of how our organisations operate, and there is no let-up in sight. As leaders we have the heavy responsibility of navigating this complexity to keep our organisations moving, and in some cases, we’ve seen this lead to an oversimplification of the problem, in an attempt to reassure and create a path forward.

Complexity research shows that there are different skills and approaches that are needed to navigate different types of problem. Mis-define the problem and you might end up trying to plug an octagon shaped hole with a round peg. Luckily, there is some great research out there on this and the handy Cynefin framework ( is one we’d recommend to help understand what type of problem you are dealing with and therefore the solutions and approaches best to use.

On the other hand, another trap we’ve seen some leaders fall into, has been to let the overwhelming complexity and constant flux we’ve been up against, stop them from taking decisions and pushing forward.

Getting this balance right is one of the toughest aspects of leadership in times of uncertainty. Underestimate or misdiagnose the problem and you might end up on the wrong path completely. But dither before putting a stake in the ground and you can put your whole organisation at risk. Transparency is vital: your colleagues need to know what you do/don’t know. As a leader, you need to project clarity, so that your teams can see a clear way ahead and remember that it’s better to set a clear path, even if you have to course-correct later. Get comfortable with making the best choices you can – with the information available – and your teams will follow.

Three tips on understanding the problem and committing to action:

  • Take time to understand what kind of problem you are dealing with and use this to guide your actions and approach

  • Try to keep your decision-making fluid – get comfortable making the best decisions you can with the information you have and engender commitment to decisions from your teams

  • Establish a path forward and communicate it with clarity – remember course correction is better than no course at all

So, what now?

Our hope is that by reviewing these 3 areas you can locate yourself and think about which one you might need to pay particular attention to, especially given the situation we are in. Do you need to focus on the I, We or the It?

And as you think about the one thing you want to try and work on to help you, your team and your organisation through this, the 3 Cs might help.

  • Curiosity: Get curious as to what is happening for you or your team or the organisation. It can be easy to move into a defensive position and if you do, notice that as well as it is telling you that something is at stake here for you. Then try and get curious as to what is going on.

  • Courage: Trying new ways of working, being and doing takes real courage. It can feel awkward and uncomfortable; but if you do what you always did then you will get what you always got. And we are talking about dials here not switches. It might be the courage to try something small (and that doesn’t diminish how difficult it might be) and the size of the impact that it can have.

  • Compassion: As we try new things out, we will fail at them and get frustrated or anxious as we try it out. Don’t beat yourself up. Recognise it; shrug it off and practice a bit of compassion on yourself and know that you are learning.

If you or know anyone who wants to develop these areas, then H3 have developed a new programme called Growth Manager. It helps individuals to develop the I, We and IT of leadership through a series of on-line interactive sessions and personal 1-1 coaching. Check it out here

About the Authors

This paper has been a wonderful collaboration between two colleagues as a result of HCubed running a virtual hackathon back in September. (Hackathons are roundtable events where we collaborate with other consultants to solve problems with a topic of leadership during a pandemic being a perfect example !).

Shauna McVeigh is a chartered Occupational Psychologist and coach and is a Director of H3 helping to set it up 10 years ago. She is passionate about helping individuals to understand their unconscious drives and how they impact on their world and in work.

Hilary Duggan is an organisational development, change, and leadership specialist. She has more than 10 years’ experience supporting and developing leaders to lead and deliver impactful organisational change.

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, then we would suggest the following:

The research we referred to included

  • Integral life practice: A 21st Century blueprint for physical health, emotional balance, mental clarity and spiritual awakening by Ken Wilber, Terry Patten, Adam Leonard and Marco Morelli

  • Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to thrive un complexity By Jennifer Garvey Berger (2019)

  • Mindset – Updated Edition: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential by Dr Carol Dweck (2017)

  • Start with Why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action by Simon Sinek (2011)

  • The essentials of Theory U: Core principles and applications by C. Otto Scharmer (2018)

  • CCL:


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