It’s CHAOS – what’s the point in talking about leadership?

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Simon Bird

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I’ve been grappling with a question. Broadly, what is the point in talking with busy people about leadership when it seems like their world is going to hell in a handcart?   

Is it a good use of their time and money to work with me or others to pause, slow down and think about their own behaviour – and what might be going on for other people?  

The easy answer is, “Yes, of course – development is always a positive investment”.  


But I’m not writing about the business case here for development – I’m more interested in the shape of that development.

VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) as a concept is used widely now to describe our world.  And even if you don’t buy VUCA as a concept or see it as overused, it’s difficult to suggest there doesn’t seem to be any increase in pace and pressure.

With that backdrop, my reflections are that it needs to be absolutely focused on the here and now. So we’re not talking about leadership models and ideas, offered on a ‘just in case’ basis. Instead, we are in the world of ‘just in time’ – so what can help right now?

I think the most valuable thing we can do for people right now is to help people with practical ways  to create what Margaret Wheatley calls, ‘islands of sanity’. She writes compellingly how in times of uncertainty and crisis, the role of the leader is to focus on themselves, create space for people to talk and on occasion be that person who can offer strength and compassion for others.

Her book is a great read – and yet I think at times we need to be even more practical. 

One approach I have found to be helpful in working with others is that of 15% Solutions – (link in the comments).  It’s based on the premise that even though an issue is far bigger than us – in a complex system, with forces we can’t even see in play – there is something we can do.  The exercise asks simply,

“What is your 15 percent? Where do you have discretion and freedom to act? What can you do without more resources or authority?”

The 15% number is irrelevant really – it could be 1.5% – the point is to focus us on what is in our control. It might be as simple as having a conversation we have avoided. Or trying something different with a team. 

When working with people who are feeling overwhelmed, perhaps the most useful development work we can do with them is to help them reframe, focus down and make sense of what’s happening.

Margaret Wheatley’s stance is that to create those islands of sanity, we do need to look at ourselves first.  Along the lines of putting your own facemask on before trying to help others. 

Perhaps that’s why it’s helpful to keep talking about leadership?

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