6 ways to thrive in an out-of-control world

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Leadership means learning to understand the forces you control. Image: Alexandr Ivanets/Stocksy United

Kayvan Kian
Management consultant, McKinsey & Company
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Future of Work

• A 'VUCA' – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous – world makes leadership increasingly difficult.

• Leaders can start by learning to lead themselves.

• The six steps below can help clarify your decision-making.

Young people entering the workforce today are often distressed. This was true when I first noticed it about seven years ago, as the project leader for a non-profit in the Netherlands, and it’s certainly true today.

On that project years ago, the non-profit’s volunteers seemed overwhelmed. What started out as a high-energy, idealistic group that wanted to improve the sustainability in the food chain of the country and beyond soon hesitated in the face of the challenge. Their work slowed as each one battled insecurities they assumed no one else shared: about the complexity of the issue, their own contribution to the current situation, their abilities to make a difference. But as a team we began to discuss our challenges together, with a focus on strengths, weaknesses and finding meaning and purpose. The project succeeded, and not a single volunteer left.

Have you read?

Ever since, I’ve observed similar dynamics among many young people aspiring to be leaders across the world.

VUCA = Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous

Today’s world is often described as ‘VUCA’, the acronym for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Globalization and technology are only two factors in play. When VUCA conditions become constant, it’s hard to discern the best ways to grow and lead.

Seven years ago, after that non-profit engagement, I founded what is now called the Young Leaders Forum, a McKinsey programme that convenes client leaders in their 20s and 30s. Our two-day workshops show participants how to refocus on things they can control. In over 50 YLF events worldwide, more than 2,000 people have explored ways to nurture their best ideas and contribute to society.

Our YLF events draw on everything from ancient Stoic philosophy to The Sound of Music to reveal a fundamental lesson: The ability to thrive depends on knowing what to leave to chance, and what is a choice.

Below are six ideas to help clarify the big and small decisions you may face on your way to having impact.

“Leading yourself” means using your will, creativity and unique strengths to shape your path as a young leader. This is not always easy, but by at least asking yourself the right question at the right time, you will have a strong sense of choice, in any given moment, in any situation.

1. Figure out what’s in your control

At any given moment, an infinite number of things fall outside your control, and a smaller number falls within it. How good are you at making a distinction between the two? Like the ancient Stoics would say: We all have 24 hours in a day. You can spend most of those hours preoccupied with things that are outside of your control or you can invest that time in the things that are within your control: improving your own life, for example, and having a positive impact on your community, colleagues, friends, family, organization, society and so on. Make this a conversation topic between you and your teams by asking: “Where are you investing your daily attention, time and energy?”

2. Balance the positive and negative

How well do you know your “favourite things”, as Julie Andrews does in The Sound of Music, or those of your teammates? And how much do you leave their experiences to chance? Independent of what happens around you, how often do you let yourself feel gratitude?

When something on a project upsets you or others, you can clear some of the noise by performing a quick reality check that will help prevent things from seeming worse than they actually are. Plot the issue on scales from personal to impersonal, general to specific, and permanent to temporary to put it in perspective.

• Was it about you?

• Was it only about you?

• Was it about something else? If so, what?

• Did it concern an isolated issue or did it affect other areas as well?

• Did you need to change everything or only parts of it?

• What was the core issue and its implications?

• Did this incident have any mid- to long-term consequences?

• How many people are still raising the incident?

• Did the incident have any positive side effects or “collateral beauties”?

3. Connect performance with energy

Do you know what gives you energy and what you are good at? They are not necessarily the same. Distinguish between the skills that fulfill you and those that somehow drain your energy. How can you use your strengths to compensate for your weaknesses, or those of your teammates? Making these questions part of your team’s weekly routine will work wonders, and you can start by filling out the simple graph below.

4. Consider how you treat others in their times of need

How do you convey your genuine care to those around you? When your team members are in a challenging situation, do you dismiss their emotions or do you stop to empathize? Do you respond with a solution or make the topic of conversation about yourself? And is that always what the other actually needs?

5. Find what’s meaningful in every moment

What is the “why” that could help you bear almost any “how”? At any given moment, can you imagine the outcome of your work (for your community, your team, yourself and your organization)? In the face of day-to-day challenges, which virtues are you building? Every difficult situation is an opportunity to cultivate courage, kindness, patience, wisdom or another virtue that you would like to exhibit in your life.

6. Celebrate with those that helped

When do you feel you’ve made a significant contribution to your teams and community? How high or low have you chosen to put that bar? How do you celebrate these milestones once you’ve reached them? Even small acts of acknowledgment can foster exceptional team spirit, especially when things feel tense or stressful.

• Kayvan Kian’s book What is Water? How Young Leaders Can Thrive in an Uncertain World is now available in print and as an e-book

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