How to Steer Your Team through Permanent Whitewater

Today's newsletter is by Dr. Kim Perkins, NOBL's Positive Organizational Psychologist to promote our leadership coaching program. Space is extremely limited. Apply now.

When I started speed skating, I was lucky enough to train with one of the most brilliant athletes in the sport. Great, I thought, I’ll just do what he did. Problem: I couldn’t do what he did. I had a ton of drive, but just following his advice or copying his moves wasn’t enough. I had to learn to skate my own race: to recognize the terrain by feel and adjust; to use my own strengths to my advantage, instead of just copying moves I had seen other people use. And paradoxically, that meant surrounding myself with a bunch of like-minded people and learning from all of them—seeing what works in real time as you strive for excellence together. Together, you can draft off each other, support each other through the tough parts, and spark new moves in real time.
Doesn’t this feel like trying to lead in 2019? You’ve asked a bunch of experienced people for advice, but the old moves and tactics no longer apply. It seems like someone ought to be able to tell you how to proceed, but it's not clear what does work; the terrain is constantly shifting. Some scholars refer to this current business environment as “permanent whitewater.” In normal water, the path is clear and the dangers predictable. In whitewater, the current is changing the environment so quickly that dangers may be hidden, or have yet to emerge. And yet, as a leader, you've somehow got to navigate your team to success.

NOBL coaching cohort permanent whitewater

Getting my PhD in leadership, it became pretty clear from the research what types of moves will help you steer your team better than others, on average. But it turns out the research can’t tell you how to recognize what terrain you’re on, or exactly which moves are the right ones for you, since no one is “average.” The world moves faster, is more connected, and is always on the march. What worked brilliantly for you yesterday may not be the right play today. The antidote for permanent whitewater is to acknowledge that the world is so complicated, no one person can handle it alone. So what can you do to paddle forward?

  • Start somewhere. It’s always easier to get people on board with a prototype than a theory. Instead of building out the full vision, come up with a skateboard—a minimum viable product that you can show people and test. It will help others get on board, and make you see and feel the progress, too.

  • Add a due date. Sports competitions have a time and date where progress will be measured; not just “sometime" or "whenever I get around to it." Don’t worry – no one’s ever really “ready” and no contest is ever final. Pick a date that’s strategically useful, get an "accountabilibuddy," and start setting up weekly check-ins to get yourself there.  

  • Join our coaching cohort. We’re putting together a cohort of ambitious, compassionate leaders to get through challenges together, supported by facilitated sessions that use NOBL’s tools and leadership practices. We've already had interest from leaders from around the world and across industries, but loyal readers who mention this newsletter will get priority consideration. Learn more about our (R)evolutionary Leadership program and sign up today. (And if you're ready to sign up, but your company needs convincing? Don't worry, we've outlined the benefits of joining the program.)


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