“Prediction is difficult, especially about the futureâ€¦” – Yogi Berra
With all of the surprises in the news these days, financial and otherwise, one thing is increasingly clear. Yogi Berra was right. Prediction is difficult. In the midst of the anxiety surrounding us, it is tempting to retreat into a particular pattern or routine. It is comforting to know that we can count on something. We find ourselves hungry for a plan – anything that can simplify our task as leaders and provide some clear direction through the fog of change.
I know the â€œchangeâ€ lecture has been done to death. â€œThe only thing we can count on is change.â€ We have been inundated with these corporate clichÃ©s until we are numb. And even numb feels better than anxiety.
But numbness doesn’t make for effective leadership. In fact, it is often the plans into which we mindlessly retreat that squelch creativity and deprive us of the benefits of innovation and true problem solving.
With all that has been preached to us from the leadership development pulpit on change, we have mindlessly fallen in line with a particular posture or response to change â€“ we have to learn how to cope with change. Change is considered to be a challenge, an enemy to effectiveness and planning. The unexamined question that is planted in our minds is, â€œHow can change be managed and controlled?â€ For me, these days, with all of the â€œfruit-basket-upsetâ€ events in my life, I find myself challenged with a different question. â€œWhat would happen if I gave up trying to control change and started encouraging it?â€
The great Louis Armstrong was once asked to define jazz. His response? â€œMan, if you gotta ask, youâ€™ll never know.â€ Recovering from my â€œnear death experienceâ€ of surgery for kidney cancer, I have been confronted more and more powerfully with the ambiguities of life. I am forced to depend less on my plans and live out of an intuitive knowing. I have had to learn to be lighter on my feet and more flexible. Many of my life plans have gone out the window. My brush with death has caused me to realize that I can’t even plan on being around tomorrow. The truth is none of us can. Life happens or it doesn’t. We can’t do much about either. In the moment when life is present, we are force to live life as improv. The marches we memorized must give way to jazz. Anything else is an illusion. Armstrongâ€™s advice to other musicians becomes the mantra of modern life – â€œNever play a thing the same way twice.â€
So, if we are forced to live and to lead in each moment and plans become more of a barrier than the change they were designed to control, does it mean that plans are useless? I love the familiar quote from General Eisenhower in preparing the Allied Forces for D-Day. â€œPlans are useless, planning is essential.â€ There is a great difference between a plan and planning. A plan is a spontaneous process that has gotten frozen. Planning has to do with bringing a clear intent to a situation while remaining flexible in how we manifest that intent.
In more stable times, leadership was able to succeed by successful execution of a plan. I believe these times are past. Instead of offering some superficial plan as a leader, we must now offer our clear intent. Maybe thatâ€™s why I get so uncomfortable with the demands on our national leaders to come up with a plan for our economy or for the war in Iraq. (I get even more uncomfortable when they presume to offer one.) What I want from them is not some trumped up (and soon to be obsolete) plan that is made to help everyone feel more secure. I want their clear and unchanging intent based on our shared values. I believe that is what leadership in a ever-changing and increasingly complex world is all about.