A colleague once gave me a poster bearing the caption: “When you’re up to your a** in alligators, it’s hard to remember your goal was to drain the swamp.” It’s always good for a chuckle… of recognition. Because is there any one of us who hasn’t been there?
In a time of economic and social chaos, when many people are desperately trying to keep writhing reptiles from nipping their knees, it’s difficult to keep your eyes on the prize, your focus on your vision, your hand steady to the wheel. But a counterintuitive skill that can help anyone thrive in times of change and disruption is to embrace chaos as opportunity: Carpe the Chaos. (That’s Power Tool #5 of the nine I’ve created and teach about to help women succeed in life and work).
There are no magic answers to keeping true to your goal when the tectonic plates are shifting under your feet. But here are 5 tips to help keep your head above water and the alligators at bay.
1. Think positive. Like Monty Python, always look at the bright side of life. You might as well, since chaos is inevitable because change is inevitable. Resilience, the ability to bounce back from setbacks, is a key to success.
And whoever is most comfortable and proactive with the ambiguity created by change is most likely not just to survive, but to thrive as a leader.
2. See your moment and seize it: Paradigm shifts don’t happen in moments of stability. Wars, economic upheavals, diseases like HIV/AIDS, social justice movements—these all cause social turbulence. “Normal” patterns are interrupted by technological innovations—the automobile, television, the pill, cell phones, the Internet, Twitter. Suddenly, if a woman can offer a solution in a traditional male field, and it works, no one cares whether she has higher-pitched voices and doesn’t follow football scores. Seize the advantage when boundaries are hazy because that’s when the world is open to new solutions. It wasn’t until the Lehmann Brothers collapse that people began to ask, “What if Lehmann Brothers had been Lehmann Sisters?” All signs point to this being women’s moment, and being authentically ourselves as leaders is the winning strategy.
3. Take the lead. Courage to act in the midst of chaos is the core of leadership: to own responsibility when you don’t have total authority, to make decisions when you know none of the options is perfect, to lead even when you’re quaking in your boots. Journalist Sarah Clemence, who co-created the hugely popular pop-up blog Recessionwire to enable people to share their recession stories and concerns after company retrenchments caused her to lose two jobs in rapid succession, says, “Creating Recessionwire was empowering. I learned a tremendous amount about business, and about—well, remember that old Nike slogan, ‘Just Do It?’ I used to think that people who did extraordinary things were somehow different. I learned that they’re people who ‘Just Do It.’” The female senators who brokered the long-languishing Federal budget deal last fall created a solution from fiscal chaos by taking the lead where others had not.
4. Look through other eyes. How do people in completely different fields and points of view approach a situation? I’m a great fan of cards called “Creative Whacks” to help me think up new solutions for seemingly intractable problems. (And do try to see the humor in every situation—laughter is always useful leavening for new ideas.) Take The Lead blogger Lex Schroeder says we should learn how to surf, metaphorically speaking, through the possible solutions: “You might think you’re supposed to stay on the straight path in your career or in a particular situation, but you actually need to take a hard left.”
5. Appreciate the potential: Since innovation usually comes from people not regarded as the norm—like a teenaged Bill Gates creating Microsoft in his garage—we often don’t see it coming. Our instinct is to seek stability. That squanders the incredible potential of disruptive change to create new channels of opportunity, more inclusive vocabularies, and better technologies. Chaos signals boundaries are fluid so you can accomplish things you might not have been able to do otherwise.
So shoo those alligators away and press forward. Carpe the chaos and new ways to achieve previously unrealizable goals will almost inevitably appear.
Your turn: When you’ve been in a chaotic situation, in work or in your personal life, did you retreat, or did you step forward and own it, rewriting the rules and setting new parameters? What did you learn that might help others? We’d love to know your thoughts and experiences.