Leading Through Change: The Maelstrom


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Leading Through Change: The Maelstrom

  1. 1. forum.com http://www.forum.com/blog/leading-through-change-the-maelstrom/?pfstyle=wpMaelstrom | Forum CorporationI had a near-death experience when I was 17. Okay, okay, none of that now—I know that all ofteenhood could be characterized that way. This was bona fide. It took place in a maelstrom,which, in case you didn’t know (I’ll admit I didn’t until recently), is the word used to describe avery strong whirlpool. The maelstrom that nearly overtook me was in a river.My family, a few friends, and I were visiting Camp Werneke[1], located on the Comal River inNew Braunfels, Texas. To get into the camp you passed through a big barnlike building. Half of itwas filled floor to ceiling with inner-tubes of all sizes, and they were in constant motion. Tossed into the pilefrom one end, and dished out from the other. The other half of the building was filled with lines of people ofall sizes and ages carrying picnic baskets and coolers, waiting for a stamp, a tube, and entry through theother side to ride the rapids on the beautiful, cool river. We did this at least twice a year from the time I wasvery young.For years I marveled at the teenagers who were brave enough to ditch the tube and, as we called it,“bareback” the river. In the eyes of a pre-teen, it looked fun, dangerous, and forbidden. And it was all three.Most parents would not allow small children and young teens to bareback the river because of one particularthreat: a very strong whirlpool situated at the foot of the final and best set of rapids. It was so powerful that, ifyou landed there in a tube, you couldn’t paddle your way out. You sat, spinning in a circle until someonecame by, extended an arm or leg, and dragged you out, or the lifeguard positioned there gave your tube ahard shove. Everyone, be-tubed or bareback, worked very hard to avoid being sucked into that vortex. Thetrick was to take a strong turn toward mid-river at a specific bolder, followed by some hard, fast paddling orstrong swimming.By 15, I too was one of the skilled “big kids” who could avoid the maelstrom bareback. And I did, over andover again.Until that run the summer I was 17. I can’t recall exactly how it happened; maybe the water was deeper thannormal, and I miscalculated my turn; maybe someone got in my way. At any rate, rather than swimming safelypast it, I found myself sucked deep down into the whirlpool. And, no matter how hard I fought—and fight I did,I could not get my head above water. The most frightening thing was this: the more I struggled, the deeper Iwent. (Oh, and for the record, when facing death—at least by drowning—your life does not pass before youreyes, but you do see stars.) I do recall two realizations I had during that struggle. One: no matter how hard Itried to work through this situation, I could not control the swirling waters or, by extension, my fate withinthem. Two, I remembered that the beefy lifeguard situated right above me was flirting with an itty-bitty bikiniwhen I shot through the rapids; this, I realized meant that no one was going to rescue me. And no one did.Not to put too dramatic a point on it, but the time quickly came when I was out of air. So I did the only thing Icould: I stopped struggling. To my very great surprise (because look, I expected to pass out and drown), theinstant I relaxed I shot into the center of the vortex and up out of the water. I survived because I quit trying toexert my will over the maelstrom.***Why post this in a blog about leadership?I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the maelstrom that most leaders find themselves trying to lead throughtoday. You know, the incredible amount of change, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity we are all dealingwith. And, unlike most of my experience on the Comal River, this maelstrom is too big to avoid. More thanone leader has told me it feels like drowning. We’ve been doing some research into how to lead effectively intoday’s incredible complexity. Our findings: What we all think we should do (do more, do faster, multi-task) tocontrol and overcome today’s maelstrom has never worked, never will, exhausts our resources, makes useasier prey for the maelstrom, and generally makes things worse. Leaders who lead well in the maelstromhave found a way to stop fighting it, freeing themselves and their teams to get results quickly and effectively.Their organizations perform better than the competition does[2].For our initial findings, read Leading in the Hurricane: Three Ways to Get You and Your Team intothe Eye of the Storm.We are continuing our research into things that highly effective leaders at all levels do to stop fighting the
  2. 2. maelstrom. If you would like to participate, or nominate someone to do so, please click here.[1] Today this once-pristine site hosts a huge water park replete with more waterslides and pools than youcould use in a day—primarily because the line for each typically stretches more than an hour.[2] Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the 2010 IBM Global CEO Study.