The importance of remaining vigilant as a leader
When teaching adaptive leadership, it is important to break down the difference between a complicated environment and a complex environment. If something is complicated, you can take it apart and figure out how it works. Even the most complicated environments, like a computer’s central processing unit, can be broken down to see how it all comes together. But that’s not the world we’re leading in right now.
Our environment is more complex, like a rainforest or a chess game. You can do some level of predicting, but it’s impossible to know exactly what’s ahead. And once something else happens, you have to navigate the chain of events that follows.
Last summer, I rafted the Payette River with my wife and some cousins. My cousin James served as our guide. It was a bit intimidating, as the river has Class IV and Class V rapids. At one point, we hit a wild rapid very hard, sending my cousin Abe out of the raft and into the churn.
For anyone who has ever been rafting, it’s a scary moment. Not only did James have to bring Abe back on to the raft, but he also had to keep the rest of us safe and get us through the rapids. We ended up getting Abe in—who thankfully only suffered some minor cuts and bruises—and eventually got to a calmer part of the river.
When we did, my cousin guiding us confessed something. He said, “I’ve run this river many times, but not at this water level. There are rocks and rapids where I wasn’t expecting them.”
His confession got me thinking: My cousin needed an entirely different level of vigilance to navigate the river and his lack of vigilance—perhaps his complacency—led to someone falling out of the boat.
That’s a metaphor for leading in this environment, whether we’re talking about the pandemic, going back to a hybrid work environment, leading in more inclusive and equitable ways, or responding to local or global crises: We need to stay vigilant and pay attention to what’s going on in the environment around us and in the lives of the people we’re leading.