When Leadership is Unstable, Drop an Anchor

Topsy turvy markets. Serial reorgs. Debilitating mid-year budget cuts. Hiring freezes and RIFs. Nebulous succession plans. I’ve experienced all of these and more. Maybe you have too. And like me, you likely felt the weight of “sink or swim” as the only way forward. 

Early in my career, I used to sit dead in the water waiting for someone, anyone, to toss me a life preserver. I expected my organization to stabilize and save me in the process. Then, with a mentor’s help, my posture shifted. I discovered that even if a ring to cling to never came (and it never did), I was well-equipped to drop an anchor during the most unstable of seasons.

Leadership instability feels more pervasive than ever right now. Along with scrambling to respond wisely to COVID-19 realities, even the best and brightest can’t predict how economic, political, and cultural winds will blow from day-to-day. The net effect of uncertainty paralyzes many, but it doesn’t have to.

When leadership around you is unstable, you have what it takes to drop an anchor and influence others to do the same. You’ll be stronger as a leader if you respond well in the middle of the mess no matter how things fare when the storm subsides. Here are three anchors you can drop anytime you’re caught in the swell of leadership instability.

Anchor #1: Add Value

I can’t take credit for this anchor. During a crisis season, our CEO told every employee, “If you don’t know what to do, just add value.” He told us to anticipate lots of closed-door meetings before a way forward would be clearer. He simply trusted us to show up with open hands and help where needed.

These two words anchored me. I imagined suiting up with “add value” emblazoned on my undershirt. It became my superhero mantra during unsettling times. Rather than wonder what I should do daily, I kept my eyes and schedule open to be present with colleagues, speak encouraging words, work on projects with immediate positive results, and champion for a brighter future without ignoring the stormy season.

If you’re unsettled by the unknown, drop your “add value” anchor. Lean into your character, experience, and integrity. Choose to help in meaningful ways one day at a time.

Anchor #2: Take Inventory

I recently coached a pair of new senior leaders who were concerned about the future of their legacy organization. They didn’t know what to work on because instability worked against their best-laid plans. They were tempted to call it quits until their boss retired. After sharing the anchoring power of “add value,” I peppered them with one questions as they shared about their company’s state of the union. I repeatedly asked, “Who owns that?” but neither knew who owned the existing initiatives and assets.

Enter the second stabilizing anchor – “take inventory.” If you don’t know what’s next, gear up for the future by figuring out all the resources you have onboard today. Who works here? What plans are in motion? When did that strategy start and why? How does the budget really work? What policies exist? I loved watching these top-level owners recognize that they didn’t have to idly wait out the storm. Instead, they could take inventory of everyone and everything to prepare for the pending senior leader succession. I heard later that this crucial anchor brought unity in the midst of unstable leadership.

Anchor #3: Be Generous

People typically batten down hatches or huddle in corners when waters get choppy. Fight or flight is our instinctual response to danger. This gets triggered when we’re surrounded by unstable leadership too. Instead of offering a helping hand, we self-protect by focusing on me and mine. You’ve likely seen colleagues grow increasingly on edge in meetings or disappear for days on end during seasons of instability. It’s possible you’ve done this. I certainly have.

Rather than holding on too tightly during storms, you have what it takes to drop a “be generous” anchor. It’s counterintuitive, but releasing your grip also relieves accompanying stress. Show up early and stay late. Grab lunch with someone instead of eating alone. Replace worry with serving others. As an older, wiser friend said the other day: “Now isn’t the time to question the math. Be generous and see what happens. The payoff will surprise you.” I’ve grown to love dropping the “be generous” anchor; and my friend’s right, it pays dividends in the long run—well after the storm has come and gone.

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