Purpose: To equip you with purpose to lead and inspire your staff and to manage uncertainty with command intent, to emerge powerfully, ready for the new normal.

Process: I'll explain how uncertainty causes stress because our brain craves certainty, purpose, and direction and lastly how you can be a different type of leader, the sort of leader who provides the very certainty, purpose and direction that will empower you to emerge stronger.

Payoff: You'll learn how to energise your staff to continue in the face of difficulties. You'll know how to communicate certainty, direction and purpose and what success on the other side of the current difficult time looks like and how you and your now continuity energised staff will achieve it.

Times of crisis demand a different type of leader where the only certain thing is that there is no certainty.

Dr John Kenworthy

Uncertainty causes stress, and we go into our “critter state”

Your brain has a single primary concern: to keep you in the “not dead” state. That is its first and foremost function. It really doesn't matter how brilliant, rich or talented you are when you are in the “dead” state.

When the world around us becomes even a little uncertain, your brain is marvellously designed to allow your older “critter brain” to take charge of survival. In a time of crisis, the “critter brain” rules the day until you deliberately choose to intervene.

For leaders who haven't been close to a crisis before, managing during such times can feel thrilling. Your brain triggers norepiphrene and adrenaline spikes as you make decisions and take action. You feel a sense of adding tangible value. The stress hormone, cortisol, steadily builds up in your body and pressures from the home front add to your anxiety.

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The longer you struggle, directionless through a crisis the more stress and anxiety builds up that could blow any second.

Before long, more people look to you for decisions and direction as they begin to flounder trying to make sense of the latest information and like Sisyphus, you discover the boulder you are pushing uphill becomes less stable with each step.

Leaders need to guide people towards the best possible outcome over time. Your focus is on what is likely to come next and preparing to meet it. You go beyond the immediate to anticipate the next three, four or five obstacles.

At the same time you need to address the urgent needs of the business, making immediate choices and allocating resources quickly and decisively.

On any normal day your “critter brain” is assessing the environment asking three questions:

  1. Am I safe?
  2. Do I belong? and
  3. Do I matter?

This isn't a once in a while process, it is every minute of every single day. “Am I safe?” is simply checking your surroundings for threats. An “all is well” response allows your brain to relax for a brief moment and if this extends for some time, you will physically relax and your brain waves will slow down.

When “Am I safe?” gets the answer: “No” then the amygdalae are brought swiftly into the action, the stress hormone norepinephrine production is triggered in your brain and your body produces adrenaline is ready for “freeze, flight or fight”.

If the threat is not judged to be imminent, the “Do I belong?” question may get out to check on the whereabouts of fellow tribe members. After all, who wants to face a ravenous wolf alone?

If there is a wolf, the “Do I matter?” question probably doesn't even get a cursory glance.

A crisis is, by definition, a time of intense stress, difficulty or danger. Even if you only experience it through a social media feed or a news bulletin.

Our safety is being threatened in a crisis. And in times of difficulty or danger, we're usually better of with our tribe on our side. At least then we might stand a chance of survival, let alone emerging triumphant and ready for the post-crisis world.

A great leader knows this and pulls and energises the team together towards a clear and tangible command intent.

your brain craves certainty, purpose and direction - it craves a command intent
Your brain could use some coaching even if you think you don't.

Your brain craves certainty, purpose and direction

Am I safe? Do I belong? Do I matter? Every minute of every day. And your brain wants an answer that is Yes, YES and YES!!!!!

James F. Parker knew this very well. He was CEO of Southwest airlines during and after the 9-11 attacks and he believes that Southwest succeeded in part because its employees work together towards the intended big-picture goal of serving customers, instead of only focusing on their own jobs.

Effective leaders, Parker says, create an atmosphere where employees are proud of their jobs, they understand the mission and purpose, and want to do the right thing.

“You can’t make people do the right thing, because if they don’t want to do it, there’s always going to be a way around it. But what you can do is make people want to do the right thing.”

James F. Parker, CEO Southwest Airlines

Your brain is also programmed to narrow focus in the face of a threat. The norepinephrine production in your brain narrows your focus and attention. An excellent survival mechanism for your cave-dwelling ancestors and somewhat useful in the modern office. The trap is that your field of vision is restricted to the immediate foreground.

Leaders need to intentionally pull back and look up to manage the immediate whilst anticipating the future obstacles. Or else you react to each and every threat as it emerges, flipping from one danger and flopping through the next. To anyone watching, it looks as though you haven't a clue what you are doing and that doesn't instil a great deal of confidence or respect in your ability to get us through this crisis.

Literally lifting your eyes heavenward can break the spell of immediacy crowding out your executive brain functions and enable you to engage considered thinking to the problems keeping in mind the longer term mission and purpose, the command intent and the people you lead.

A great leader knows that a crisis is a crisis because it affects people. Though leaders can fall into the trap of worrying about daily metrics of share price, revenue and costs. Of course these matter, but they are the outcome of the coordinate efforts of people, the tribe to which the leader belongs.

Energise your staff to continue in the face of difficult times to emerge stronger.

The great leader's solution is to unite people in their efforts and goals as valued members of a cohesive team. This begins with a clearly communicated mission that infuses the work with purpose. The mission and purpose is then animated through an inclusive leadership approach where each person understands how they and their skills and talents contribute—and that their contribution is appreciated and recognised.

What you need is what the army calls a “Command Intent”.

What is Command Intent and how do I create one?

Command Intent is the definition and description of what a successful mission will look like to the commander (or CEO).

You need to articulate specifically what you will see, hear, feel, smell and taste when you have achieved success. You will know exactly what you will win when you are successful and what it will cost. You will know who, what, where, when and how the people will execute the mission.

Command intent is what success looks like whilst fully recognising that the situation will be chaotic, that there is a lack of complete information, that the enemy (competition, virus, laws, Government) changes the situation and anything else that may impact the situation to make the plan completely or partially obsolete when executed.

Critically, Command Intent empowers subordinates to guide their improvisation and to take the initiative to adapt the plan to the changing environment. It enables the whole team to keep the clear vision of a successful conclusion whilst being agile and taking initiative to change when necessary.

Why not just use SMART goals?

The downside of SMART goals is their lack of purpose. SMART goals are terrific, but they don't tell me why, nor what to do should the specific result become impossible given a change in the situation… and there will be a change in the situation.

A quick way to arrive at a useful Command Intent is to use one or both of the following questions as suggested by the NATO Combat Manoeuvring Training Center:

  1. “If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must . . . , so that . . .”
  2. “The single, most important thing that we must do tomorrow is . . . , so that . . . ”

But how do we plan for the unknown dynamic change?

One big problem for leaders on a “normal” day is that the environment of business competition and goals are dynamic. During difficult times, that truth simply accelerates and in new and previously unseen ways. As soon as you are fully aware of the current situation, that situation has already changed. Leaders need to gain dynamic situational awareness.

Gain situational Awareness

Shared Situational awareness is perhaps one of the most critical skills for collaboration in a crisis. Situational awareness is the ability to create a mental model that identifies, processes, and comprehends the critical elements of information about what is happening to you and your organisation in relation to the current situation. More simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you. Shared situational awareness is have a shared perspective of the changing current situation and a shared mental image of what is happening and trust each other to act based on these shared mental models.

Heavyweight boxing champion, Mike Tyson has a tremendously useful philosophy about plans:

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

To avoid the punch in the mouth, you and your team need to be empowered to strategically improvise.

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Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth!

In every battlefield there are knowns and unknowns. All plans and intentions start with the ridiculous idea that we know everything that we need to know. We don't. And, when we are honest, we know that we don't know. And we need to get comfortable with that.

No plan survives contact with the enemy

Attributed to Helmuth von Moltke in the 19th century.

In any crisis, leaders often under immense pressure and with compressed timelines and high stakes, must formulate a new approach to the changing situation. They then execute new responses or a combination of responses to manage the situation as they see it in light of their Command Intent. In other words, leaders must improvise in order to develop a strategic response and follow a simple 3-step process:

  1. Make a decision!
  2. Communicate
  3. Evaluate

The only difficulty is that it takes a strong leader to accept that they might make a less than perfect decision. Only a strong leader accepts responsibility and holds themselves accountable in light of mistaken decisions. Only a strong leader knows that clear communication is key, and that communication is the response they get. Only a strong leader makes sure that they evaluate and when successful and they achieve the Command Intent, only a strong, great leader passes the praise and glory to the team.

Only those leaders who energise their staff for continuity will thrive in difficult times. And to emerge stronger, leaders need a clear Commander's Intent, with Shared Situational Awareness and staff empowered to strategically improvise.

Of course, if you want your team to lack confidence, fear failure, have endless meetings revisiting the same old things again and again and encourage second guessing then don't do this.

Empower yourself today:

“If I do nothing else tomorrow, I must … so that….”