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How Leaders Absorb Chaos

2020, the year of COVID-19, racial unrest, economic challenges, and political uncertainty. In other words, the year of chaos.

Any leader who leads long enough will eventually encounter a period of chaos – it might last a few minutes or even days. Every now and then, it might even last for an extended season. In the normal course of life and leadership, moving forward means tackling challenges or overcoming obstacles.

What about chaos?

Training, education, and experience can help prepare you for the common challenges and obstacles an organization might face — financial, staffing, etc. In many cases, challenges and obstacles (while tough) often follow predictable patterns or share common characteristics.

Chaos is, well, chaotic.

As we’ve learned in 2020, chaos is unpredictable. It shifts for no reason, stopping and starting when it wants to. It is more likely to creep up on you than to raise warning flags along the way. Challenges might be anticipated by looking at indicators; there’s often no indication of impending chaos.

As a leader in a time of chaos, one of our responsibilities is to help absorb the chaos. It’s our task to place our hands on the shaking table and help calm it down. This happens as we absorb the vibrations, allowing the table to return to a place of stability.

In practical terms. how can we do this?

Chaos by its very nature is disruptive, jarring, and filled with emotion. Chaos is unsteady; the leader must be steady. Good leaders have learned to not panic or overreact, which actually creates more chaos. In a hot situation, calmness cools things down.

Because chaos has emotional elements to it (fear, uncertainty, anger, confusion), a leader who absorbs the chaos recognizes the emotions rather than ignoring them. When your child is crying over a legitimate hurt, you don’t tell them to stop crying. You lean down, lift their chin, and say, “I’m sorry that this happened to you.” By recognizing their pain, you are absorbing it, too.

With challenges, obstacles, or chaos, people need encouragement and direction. But above all, and I believe this is especially true during chaotic times, people need hope. “We will get through this.” “The chaos will eventually settle down.” “Better days are coming.” A good leader never lies to her followers. We don’t diminish the difficulty. But without hope, despair eventually sets in.

A final word about absorbing chaos: It assumes we have the capacity to do so. If our bandwidth is razor thin and stretched to the limit, our ability to absorb the chaos will be limited and short-term. Regular, continual self-care and renewal is not only preventative but it prepares us for those unforeseen times of chaos.

While absorbing the chaos may not be the most glamorous part of leadership, it may be its greatest test and greatest opportunity.

Experience and Background

  • Professor at Warner University
  • masters in business administration (mba)
  • presenter at the WFX National Conference
  • former president, Church Planters of the Rockies
  • helped start 2 for-profit tech companies

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