'Don't be still. One of the most common mistakes when change is upon us is to take enormous amounts to time to run analysis and come up with various routes to be followed. Sitting still in moving waters will only lead to a ship becoming adrift, with no indication of where it will end up or whether it will sink. If adjusting the course is needed, the leader should do it quickly and without hesitation.' (Raluca Cristescu)
The start of this new year has felt like a very rough ride for some people. I’ve been working alongside humanitarian disaster management experts in and from a wide range of countries, trying to make a difference for those who are poorest and most vulnerable in the world. In some places, wave after wave of devastating impacts have hit hard and fast, ranging from drought, crop failure and swarms of locusts to military conflict and deep civil unrest – all with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis overlaid on top.
A close friend in the Philippines spent today with her children, praying earnestly and wrapping what few possessions they have in plastic bags in preparation for the roof of their fragile boarding house being torn off by an impending typhoon. Others I’ve been supporting have been grafting long hours, trying to help people and communities recover from the effects of war. The power fluctuates on and off, as does the wifi signal, making online communication difficult – yet I, we, they, persevere.
My first direct experience of disaster response was some years ago during the Kosovo crisis. I travelled with a team across Spain, France, Italy and Albania to take emergency logistical supplies to refugee camps on the frontline border with Serbia. Our vehicles were fitted with spare tyres, satellite communications equipment and ballistic blankets in case we drove over land mines. I remember vividly the ‘No weapons on board’ symbols on our windows – signalling, I hoped, ‘Please don’t shoot us.’
We encountered challenge-after-challenge on route. At times, it felt as if everything was against us. As military helicopters flew overhead in impressive formation, we meanwhile were often stuck firmly on the ground, mired in red tape or the insidious effects of blatant corruption. It was a rapid learning experience for me, seeing how my seasoned disaster response colleagues handled this. It was my first exposure to adaptive leadership in a crisis too – out in the field, not inside an organisation.
It went something like this: 1. Hold tightly to your goals and values but loosely to your plans. If you expect everything to go smoothly, you will get disheartened and frustrated. 2. Treat every roadblock as a new reality. It’s not the end of the road, it’s another challenge to navigate. 3. Think quickly and tactically. Lateral thinking will prove more useful than strategic planning. 4. When faced with an obstacle, take a decision and act. Don't stop, keep moving. 5. Pray – God can do more than you can do.
This kind of activist-pragmatist outlook, behaviour and stance draws on and develops creativity, innovation, resourcefulness and resilience. It’s a way in which the poorest and most vulnerable people and communities learn to survive and thrive too. When a life situation is too painful, turbulent or dynamically-complex to understand, predict or control, a focus on the here-and-now can be the most meaningful choice. Even small steps can engender and evoke a real sense of agency, hope and change.
My work now includes coaching, mentoring, facilitating and training of humanitarian field workers in action learning: a here-and-now, real-time methodology to stimulate adaptive leadership and learning in the midst of action. It’s an experimental pilot initiative with a global network of humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a team of action learning specialists. When have you developed or used adaptive leadership in a crisis? How did you do it? What difference did it make?
'Vulnerability + Hazard = Disaster.’ (Steve Penny)
It’s one thing to conceptualise it. It’s quite another thing to feel it, to experience it, to know it for real. Marcus Oxley, international disaster response expert, comments with insight that at moments when crisis hits, all vulnerabilities that pre-existed, yet lay out of view, come into sharp relief. It’s like a lightning flash in the darkness of night that, suddenly and just for a moment, reveals starkly what’s already there: e.g. political systems, public services, infrastructure, corruption, technology, security etc.
Yet crisis can also reveal and evoke extraordinary awareness, resourcefulness and resilience. Shona Adams, a clinical psychology expert, observed astutely that people often don’t know what’s possible, or what they and others are truly capable of, until they are in a crisis. There’s only so much we can imagine, anticipate and prepare for in advance. People sometimes discover surprising strength, support and spirit and fresh possibilities emerge, as if by magic, that lay hidden or untapped before.
So, here are some tips for leaders, coaches, OD and HR that feel especially pertinent in the midst of the Coronacrisis: 1. What vulnerabilities have emerged that were already there, yet your client now sees more visibly and has energy to address? 2. What has stayed strong or not broken in the face of crisis? (e.g. ‘If your client rates his or her resilience as 2 out of 5, what has stopped it becoming a 1?’). 3. What new opportunities can you and the client see and create: to be, become or do something new?
Can I help you think through steps 1-3 in your work? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
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