Back in August we had an environmental catastrophe here in the Pacific Northwest that not many people heard about. A fish farm full of 300,000 plus Atlantic Salmon had a containment cage break open. Suddenly there were hundreds of thousands of the wrong kind of fish in the wrong habitat. The native species of endangered Pacific Salmon were suddenly at risk based upon the instantaneous addition of similar but different fish competing for shared resources.
I am clearly not a marine biologist and there are many factors to consider in this systemically complex event. That said, I did find the event and the issues it raised an interesting metaphor for the work I do with leaders and teams within evolving organizations.
A lot of my work is with teams that are trying to create and adjust to new ways of operating within existing organizations. As I learned more about the fish catastrophe I couldn’t help but think about a number of my clients and the challenges they are facing trying to adapt to and lead within new or different environments.
So here is what I came up with as the 4 attributes for leaders to succeed when they find themselves suddenly in new waters. When I speak of leaders, I am talking about anyone on a team that can demonstrate the following leadership qualities regardless of their role on the team.
- Courage – First and foremost it requires courage for anyone to open themselves to and embrace change. Most people don’t like change and would much rather keep things the same if they had their choice. The reality is change is happening always and the sooner we get comfortable with it and move toward it rather than away from it the better. The fish cage collapsed and all of a sudden everything changed both for the escaped fish and the existing native fish. There is no going back and no place to hide, so go toward the change and the fear it inevitably brings up. Honor yourself and others for the courage to do so whenever possible.
- Curiosity – If you can approach the new environment with a sense of intrigue rather than the need to know and show your right, the more effective you will be in your new environment. The escaped fish were easy to capture for the most part because they continued to behave as they had in the cage. They swam in similar patterns and stayed in similar environments, which made them easy to spot. The same occurs for members of teams that now have to operate differently in a new environment. If you can be curious about what is different, what works and doesn’t work, what you should let go of and hold onto and how you are received and perceived in your new environment, the better you will adapt and others will learn from you rather than being threatened by you.
- Commitment – Learning new behaviors takes time and perseverance. Species do not evolve quickly the same way human behaviors take time to change. Being committed means continually standing for the change that needs to occur, one interaction at a time. If the waters are filled passive aggressive behavior, lack of conflict, indirect communications, the only way to make it different is by continually modeling the new behaviors. It takes commitment to be hard and direct on the business problems while being respectful of the people working on the problems. Continuing to explore and close interpersonal gaps, seek and share honest feedback in service of changing the culture of a place takes real resolve that comes from individuals committed to speaking the truth as honestly as possible in the moment together.
- Passion – The work as I like to call it, takes heart. Emotions will be present and trying to deny the feelings that come up in the midst of the duress is futile. Passionate leaders are in touch with their own emotions and empathetic of other individuals’ emotions along the way. They have worked hard to understand and develop their Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and know the benefit of exploring emotions for valuable information rather than ignoring or suppressing the soft skills at work. They are also compassionate with themselves and others as they navigate the new waters and the pressures that come with sudden change.
All of this change I’m talking about most often is metabolized within teams. Just like the fish suddenly needing to learn how to swim in a new school, we as social beings explore and experience most of the change terrain in organizations within teams. Each team we are a part of is subtly different from the next in terms of how people relate to one another and get work accomplished together. This can get exacerbated within large organizations that span across broader divisions, geography, and functions. The complexity increases quickly and puts more pressure on leaders and team members to be able to adapt efficiently and effectively as they coordinate to accomplish tasks together.
Anyone that finds themselves suddenly thrust in a new environment will have days when they don’t feel they belong or want to be there. There will also be those environments where they are seen as a species to eradicate because of their differences. Yet those are the days when I would argue they need to model these four critical leadership qualities in order to not only survive, but more importantly help their organizations thrive by continuing to evolve and navigate change together.
My heart goes out to all of you who feel like you are swimming in foreign waters. I hope this post will serve as a reminder to be more of who you are. I believe that if you model these attributes, it will not only help you navigate the challenging situations you face, but more importantly, it will also help you succeed in leading others to evolve regardless of your role within the organization and team you currently swim with.