I love a good speech that brings the crowd to their feet, energized, engaged and committed to moving forward to the next level. Over the decades, I have witnessed many a senior leader stand and deliver. Routinely, I hear leaders quote Winston Churchill and state that “every change is a challenge to become who we are.” And what many leaders forget is that one person's challenge may be another person’s total chaos.
In particular, leaders often forget that something is a challenge only when those who have to face it have clarity about why, how, what, and when. Regularly, leaders skip these details in their rush to begin. They have been thinking about this situation for quite a long time. Meanwhile, the listener has been quietly focused on doing the day to day operations of the company. The follower is focused on the now while the leader is focused on the future.
This all reminds me of that famous quote by Yogi Berra: “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace.” The challenge that most leaders are talking about is not a someplace thing. It is a specific thing with a specific outcome or result. However, the new place, i.e. the place on the other side of the challenge, is not an every day thought for most people in non-leadership positions. They just want to do what has got to be done.
Furthermore, leaders forget that what they are calling a challenge for most non-leaders feels like total chaos. A challenge by definition is a stimulating task or problem that needs to be solved. Chaos, on the other hand, feels like utter confusion. The dictionary defines chaos as “the confused unorganized state of primordial matter before the creation of distinct forms.” For the follower who is doing their daily job, a challenge means there is a high probability for things and people to be unpredictable, problematic, and difficult. And frankly, most non-leaders are not seeking out experiences where utter confusion might take place.
Therefore, I routinely coach leaders that before they start talking about challenges, they need to get their ducks in a row and figure out the whys, the whats, the hows and the when. Starting from a firm foundation of clarity, I encourage them to sell the problem before they starting quoting Winston Churchill. Then, they and their people can avoid getting lost in the unorganized state of primordial matter, i.e. chaos. They instead can start from a common ground of clarity and commitment.
This week, do your homework as a leader before you starting speaking about challenges. It will make a world of difference for all involved.