Original Link : https://medium.com/swlh/how-to-overcome-the-unknown-daa6ad2da2b4

Learning to Thrive in Uncertainty is Your Key to Success

Have we ever felt more captive to uncertainty than in 2018? Have we ever read so many think-pieces asking the question “what is going on in the world today??” than in the past year? If you’ve wondered how you can make it, and still succeed in this crazy world we live in, this article is for you.

Introducing The CHAOTIC Model

“Houston, we have a problem.”

NASA Mission Commander Jim Lovell exemplified the ability to lead during crisis. His calm, and unshakable faith in his team meant the difference between life and death for him. The Apollo 13 catastrophe, and the decisions made during it, have been studied since Lovell and his crew splashed into the Indian Ocean on April 17th, 1970. Their story, and the stories of countless others like them, resonate with the hallmarks of what I call the CHAOTIC Leadership Model.

CHAOTIC Leadership is a series of seven interconnected principles that I’ve developed based on my own years of experience in the military leadership realm, as well as research and study into some of the most diverse and complex organizations on the planet today. This post will outline the seven principles, and, if you apply them, will change the way you react to chaos and uncertainty.

Please note that CHAOTIC Leadership is not a leadership style that creates chaos, despite the name. We have too many chaotic leaders, by that definition, in the world already. I use the term as an acronym for a set of ideas, or principles that will enable you to lead despite the inevitable chaos around you. Those principles are:

  • Control What You Can
  • Honesty With Yourself and Others
  • Act, Don’t Just React
  • Open Yourself to Help
  • Take Charge of Yourself
  • Inspire a Positive Difference
  • Concentrate on the Bigger Picture

Each of these ideas interconnects, and builds on each other to form a system of leadership resilience.

Before we go any farther into examining the model, I want to give you the Why. Why will this model help you? Why should you keep reading? Well, up above, you may have noticed that I said chaos was inevitable; regardless of whether you’re a freelancer, a startup founder, or even a manager in a major corporation, chaos and uncertainty will find you. Knowing how to respond to the inevitability of chaos is a vital skill you will need to ensure your success.

Principle #1 — Control What You Can

Going back to Jim Lovell and the Apollo 13 crew, we see this principle in action. There wasn’t a lot they could do about the situation they found themselves in, but in reading the story and studying the reactions of the people involved, both in the capsule and on the ground, a pattern of focusing on one problem at a time emerges. This is the essence of Controlling What You Can.

What can you control in an inherently chaotic situation or circumstance? Regardless of the cause of the chaos or uncertainty, there are always going to be things that are within your control. The first, and most fundamental thing that is always in your control is your attitude and your response to the uncertainty you find yourself in.

Equally important to this whole idea of controlling what you can is the idea of staying engaged. This idea will resurface a couple more times before we’re through, but it’s worth mentioning here: If you find yourself surrounded by chaos and uncertainty, you can’t allow yourself to shut down and become disengaged from either your work or yourself. You can’t let the chaos shut you down, and render you powerless. You can’t control everything, but you also can’t let go of everything and resign yourself to the chaos around you.

Principle #2 — Honesty With Yourself and Others

Nobody wants to do business with a liar. Nobody wants to do business with somebody who has never assessed their strengths and weaknesses. What’s more, nobody wants to do business with, or work for somebody, who is afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I need help.” These people are ticking time bombs, and we all know it.

Before I joined the military, I worked at a restaurant that was in constant turmoil, due to a lack of honesty within management. I don’t mean dishonesty in the sense that they would outright lie to the employees. I mean more what I described above as the unwillingness to assess themselves, the market, and their strengths and weaknesses. You can see this often in companies that have been overtaken by new technology or made irrelevant by changes around them (cf: Situational Chaos!). They refuse to believe that anyone can challenge their way of doing things. As a result of this attitude the restaurant I worked for lost out big time when the market in the city changed and diners started wanting different things. It went through a revolving door of ownership and management and has only now, nearly a decade later, begun to recover.

Fundamental honesty is one of the most important characteristics a leader can have. We are more drawn to follow those we believe to be honest. So how does this principle relate to uncertainty and chaos at work?

When you’re faced with uncertainty in your company, you must be honest with yourself about your own capabilities, and the capabilities of your company. Think about this: If someone had come to Steve Jobs when he was making one-off computers in his garage, and asked him “can you deliver 100,000 units in 3 months” would it have been honest for Jobs to say “sure, no problem!”?

Principle #3 — Act, Don’t React

Chaotic or uncertain situations make us inherently reactive. We can’t expect all the uncertainty that we’ll encounter. If we could, we’d take steps to ensure we don’t encounter it! But, still, it comes looking for us when we least expect it. That said, while we may be forced to react to the chaos itself, I want to focus instead of some of the ways that we can maintain action, and keep moving forward in the face of uncertainty. The key takeaway from this section is this: don’t shut down! Shutting down, and waiting for the waves of uncertainty to crash over your head will never ever work! Even if you can only take tiny actions, asserting that measure of control, even in small areas, will keep you moving forward. What’s more, it will keep your frame of mind such that you resist the urge to shut down completely.

It’s important to note that you’ll never be able to be purely active, instead of reactive. You do have to react to situations and circumstances as they change around you. The goal, though, is for you to be (yes, everybody’s favorite buzzword) proactive. Being proactive is great, but there’s a bit more to this principle than just being proactive. I want you to think of all the things that you do in a day related to your business. Now, picture the most chaotic thing you can think of happening to your business (but keep it realistic, please!) Cross out on your mental list the items that are genuinely impossible because of this hypothetical catastrophe. How many items are left? Whatever your number, do those things, immediately. Restoring a sense of normalcy and getting back on your feet after a period of chaos and uncertainty is usually the first step to achieving success over the uncertainty. And it also usually means working away at those little things that seem unimportant 90% of the time.

Principle #4 — Open Yourself to Help from Others

We all need help sometimes. Some of us need a lot of help sometimes! Being a leader takes about a metric ton of humility, and we all struggle to admit when we need help. I know I do. And yet, the more work we have on our plates (especially for you entrepreneur-types out there) the less we ask for the help we need.

Why is that? While some might say that we’re arrogant, the truth is more complex. For most of you reading this, I bet that it’s much more wrapped up in the fact that, unlike the faceless, nameless CEOs of a big company, you areyour own brand. You are the face and voice and heart and soul of your company! You rely on your own passion to communicate the vision for your company (more on that later, in step Seven) and the customers and clients you have are with you because they trust you. So, inevitably, when chaos descends on you, it seems like the end of the world.

The importance of having a network of folks you can ask for help is obvious, but the types of people that you need to have in your network may not be. I’ve found that the three best types of folks to reach out to in times of chaos are:

  • The Elders: those who’ve been there, done that, and are in your same industry or business
  • The Peers: those who are in roughly the same place in life, and in business as you
  • The Outsiders: this is the group that most miss. These are the people who know you, and invest in you, but do not work in your line of business. They provide the perspective that so many of us lose when we get chaos-induced tunnel vision.

Principle #5 — Take Charge of Yourself

Throughout my military career, I had many opportunities and challenges that required me to take charge of myself before I could take charge of others and move forward. One of the stories that best illustrates this is this one: In 2011, on my first overseas deployment, I led a small group of people, and given the responsibility for making sure that equipment leaving the country made it back to the United States. I had no idea what I was doing, and the rest of my team was unfamiliar with this very intricate accountability and paperwork process that we had to put in place to keep our bosses happy. Instead of giving up, or taking massive amounts of time we didn’t have to learn the entire process, each of us decided to focus on our own individual part, learn that as best we could, and trust the others to do the same. This is one of the most critical aspects of this fifth principle: Find what you’re responsible for, own it 100%, but then trust others to do the same with their areas of expertise!

Sometimes, the only thing you can control about a situation is yourself. If you can’t practice self-discipline and self-direction, the entire rest of the puzzle falls to pieces. Leaders who lack the ability to lead themselves first may be able to “fake it” for a while, but their ability to lead will run out. Taking Charge of Yourself means knowing yourself, your leadership style, and your strengths and weaknesses. Taking Charge of Yourself means being able to articulate to others the ways that you can best help them to succeed.

Principle #6 — Inspire a Positive Difference

Inspiring a positive difference is what will make or break you during chaos. The ability to take positive action is important whether you’re an entrepreneur or someone working for a company in a leadership role.

In times of chaos, you’ll find yourself unable to impact the cause of the chaos. Nonetheless, innovation is still required. One of the greatest examples of this ability to innovate during times of chaos is Ray Davis, the former CEO of Umpqua Bank. In his book Leading Through Uncertainty, Ray outlines how he and his bank came out of the 2008 financial crisis stronger than they started! Ray’s blend of vision, strategy, and positive outlook were key to his firm’s survival and continued success.

Principle #7 — Concentrate on the Bigger Picture

As a leader, especially in a startup, it’s your number one priority to establish and set a vision for yourself and your company. Without that bigger picture, the fundamental “Why” as Simon Sinek says, behind every decision that you make, you will lose direction and your company will flop. Without vision, your company and you yourself will not be prepared to use the other six principles we’ve discussed here in this class. Without a bigger picture driving you, without your Why, there will be no motivation to power through adversity and come out the other side better than you were when you went in.

There are shelves of books on increasing your visionary leadership, so I won’t dive too deeply into it here. Instead, I’ll assume you already understand the importance of finding your Why, and applying it as a measuring stick to every decision that you take. That’s the essence of this final principle anyway: making sure, each step of the way, that your bigger picture informs your actions. If you’re not taking steps that are in line with your vision for yourself or your team, you won’t be able to move out of the chaos. That vision, like a thread guiding you through a dark room, is what you need to put this entire CHAOTIC Leadership Model together and into practice!


That’s it. That’s the entire CHAOTIC Leadership Model for you. Each of these seven ideas could be an entire post in and of itself, but as I said at the beginning, it would lose some connectivity if I broke it all up that way. I designed this model as a system. It’s a system that, if you use it, will help you defeat uncertainty, and, what’s more, in time even enable you to harness and use chaos and uncertainty to your benefit. I didn’t title this post “How to Decrease Uncertainty” for a reason: Uncertainty and chaos can be tools of entrepreneurial growth! I don’t want you to learn how to decrease uncertainty, like taking a pain-killer. Instead, I want you to transform the uncertainty and chaos you’ll face at work into something that makes you and your team and your company stronger, richer, and more powerful than when you started!