Lead As If You’re Still Going To Be Here

Posted 05.23.2011

As I write this, it is Sunday afternoon and I'm happy to report that, contrary to a firm prediction from the founder of Family Radio, we're all still here. The world didn't end. I have to say that I wasn't really that worried because I've had direct experience with people who were convinced the end of the world was imminent.

Worlds-end Older readers may remember the guy who used to wear a rainbow colored Afro wig and a John 3:16 t shirt and had a knack for getting himself on TV at sporting events in the late 1970’s and 1980s. His name was Rock’n’ Rollen Stewart.  My best friend, Ty, and I met him when we were in college and went to Atlanta one weekend to see the PGA Championship. Stewart was standing beside us in the crowd in full regalia and we started talking with him. He wanted to head up to the US Open tennis tournament later in the weekend and was trying to convince us to wear a couple of his extra wigs and represent him in Atlanta as he drove to Flushing Meadows, NY.  We politely declined the request but asked him what motivated him to do what he did. He told us that he thought the world was going to end on a particular date in the near future (I don't remember the date but it was going to be on a Friday.) and he wanted to get his message out before then. One of us asked him what he'd do if the world didn't end that day. He told us that he'd take the weekend off and come back the following Monday.

As it turned out, Rollen was a seriously disturbed guy (you can read the rest of his story on Wikipedia), but his line about coming back the following Monday has stayed with me over the years.  Leaders continually face uncertainty about what could happen in the future. It can be paralyzing if you let it be. I learned a powerful lesson on how to get over that from my last corporate boss, Cathy Abbott, when she was the CEO of Columbia Gas Transmission Corporation. 

In 1999, it became clear to all of us on her senior management team that something was going to happen with our parent company, Columbia Energy Group. It was either going to do an acquisition or, more likely, be acquired. (That's what happened the next year.)  As we were creating our 2000 business plan for Transmission in the summer and fall of 1999, Cathy was adamant that we not be distracted by what might or might not happen with the parent company. Her goal and insistence was that we create the very best business plan possible and position ourselves to execute it.  Her point was that creating and pursuing a great plan was the only thing that we as a management team could control.  No matter what the outcome with the parent – buy, sell or hold – our subsidiary was going to be best served by having a great plan, great performance and a great story to tell.

Leaders can't control or predict the future. The most responsible thing they can do is lead as if we're all going to be here to deal with or benefit from the results of our actions.

What do you do to keep yourself and your team focused in the midst of uncertainty?