Leadership In The Face Of Accelerating Change

leadershipIt was early on a Monday when I awoke to a text. “Have you seen the papers?” I recognized the sender as a health system CEO I know well. He was 30 days into the job.

I scanned the breaking news on my phone . . . the system was being investigated by the government for fraud, a carry-over from the previous regime.

I texted back: “Throw out the 90-day plan. Start leading.”

He knew exactly what I meant and I was sure he was already doing it. Leading. CEOs and top executives can forget that their primary role is to be there in crisis or at times that truly can disrupt and define their tenures. It is on those rare, unpredictable days that they earn their money . . . and respect.

When I look toward the future of leadership, I see success defined more by the excruciating decisions that happen every so often rather than daily—a scandal captured in breaking news, a hurricane or wildfire, a crossroads in the business, a market disruption, or a social movement that forces us to reconsider past assumptions. This is particularly true in an era of short tenures in which fewer executives have the luxury of displaying their excellence patiently and methodically over years and decades.

“From a talent standpoint, surround yourselves with executives and staff who handle chaos and roll with it.”

In Thanks for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in an Age of Acceleration, Thomas Friedman suggests that we are living in an age of accelerated change like no other in history. Major disruptive events or inflection points that alter our landscape are going to happen more and more. They present leaders with two choices: embrace the change and make the best of it or be overwhelmed.

Good CEOs love a challenge. “Discomfort is their comfort zone,” writes New York Times columnist Adam Bryant, following his interviews with more than 500 chief executives. He reminds CEOs, “There are too many variables, many of them beyond your control.”

A board chair who was leading the search for a new CEO recently told me: “We need someone who can answer questions we don’t even know to ask yet.”

Is planning irrelevant if we don’t know tomorrow’s questions? What about the 90-day plan? The five-year plan? Planning helps you prepare with the understanding a disruptive event is just around the corner, in which case the plan might go out the window. My advice to CEOs when it happens: Lead with confidence that comes from good judgment and built by experience. Trust your methods. As new questions crop up, yesterdays answers won’t always work but the process by which the leader searches for answers will.

Expect the disruptions. From a talent standpoint, surround yourselves with executives and staff who handle chaos and roll with it. Make flexibility and adaptability essential competencies to recruit for.

Leadership in the coming years, I believe, will not be about sweating the small stuff. It will be about handling the crises, disruptive factors, or tipping points that will define your legacy.

Andrew P. Chastain is president and CEO of WittKieffer, a global executive search firm dedicated exclusively to organizations that improve quality of life in health care, education, the life sciences and the not-for-profit sector. He is responsible for charting the firm’s strategic trajectory while ensuring WittKieffer’s industry-specialized consultants deliver solutions across the leadership continuum – experienced, emerging and interim – that build long-term partnerships and successful outcomes. Andrew brings over 20 years of leadership experience to the firm and continues to play a key role in select, high-profile search assignments. He is an active member of the American College of Healthcare Executives and serves on the Xavier University Graduate Program in Health Administration’s Advisory Board while also acting as a frequent speaker and contributor.