Deepak Chopra may be best known as a self-help guru, but he’s also a successful entrepreneur who claims to have built a multi-million dollar brand using only the power of his mind. In a seminar at Kellogg School of Management, Chopra told his audience that great leaders are those that can find wisdom in the midst of chaos:
No matter how complex a situation looks, leadership is possible from one simple attitude: Being comfortable with disorder.
At no time has this been more true than in the past year, when the pandemic upended everyone’s best laid plans. If we’ve learned one thing, though, it’s the importance of being flexible; of having the presence of mind to pivot when necessary and abandon old systems when they’re no longer relevant.
This can be especially difficult for entrepreneurs, who have a tendency to be stressed-out control freaks. But as scary as it is to let go, the truth is that we are never really in control in the first place.
It’s okay to be uncertain
Even the most successful entrepreneurs can’t predict the future. That means that no matter how cool and collected they look on the outside, every one of them has, at some point or another, made a decision they’ve been unsure will pan out.
Successful founders know that nothing is a given. In his dissertation, Dr. Steve Trost delved into how entrepreneurs handle the inevitable uncertainty they face, and found that they “possess…a disregard for prior knowledge.” Too much knowledge, in other words, can actually be a hindrance.
This is the essence of shoshin, or the beginner’s mind. Experts tend to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing ideas, rather than information that actually teaches them something new. But uncertainty is an extremely helpful tool for figuring out what you don’t know, and investigating accordingly. Non-experts are also better at asking obvious questions — why can’t computers and music be portable? Why can’t eyeglasses be cheap? The best innovators don’t take information for granted, but set out to answer questions on their own terms.
Messiness fuels growth
As an entrepreneur, I strongly believe in systems. Systems have been instrumental in helping me grow my company, Jotform, from a simple idea to a team of more than 300 employees.
That said, even the most systematized entrepreneur encounters messiness — and that’s not always a bad thing. In fact, Tim Harford, author of Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, argues that there’s a lot to be said for things that don’t fit into standard categories; “the stuff that we can’t organize or put into a neat box.” Order and tidiness have their place, “but there’s virtue in all the ambiguous, all the unquantifiable and all the imperfect stuff as well.”
Consider, for instance, a customer who has a need or complaint. Sometimes a systemized response will do the trick, but other times, it’s necessary to address their issue in a more personal way. The same is true whenever a business undergoes change — which, if it wants to survive in the long-term, it will. As much as entrepreneurs crave control, adapting often means letting go, experimenting, and getting your hands a little dirty.
Hartford emphasizes that he’s not advocating for disorder in all circumstances. His point, rather, is that our systems can sometimes work so well that we try to apply them to everything, even when a little messiness might yield better results.
If we experiment a little bit more with improvisation, with ambiguity, with a bit of disruption and new challenge, we might well be surprised by how that improves things.
Lessons from COVID
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, having a high degree of emotional intelligence was not a hard and fast requirement for running a business. That’s no longer true.
The last year has brought a raft of challenges that forced founders to adjust their processes and expectations at a breakneck pace. Lockdowns, paired with the nationwide racial-justice reckoning, made it necessary for leaders to ditch status-quo professionalism and address the emotional needs of their employees. With full-time workers experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety, good managers ditched their management playbooks and reached out to their employees with empathy.
Leading successfully in the COVID-era also meant abandoning traditional processes in favor of turn-on-a-dime innovation. A good example of this is the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, which was able to drastically expand its telehealth capabilities in just weeks, despite models that predicted it would take several years.
Finally, successful pandemic leaders were those who were able to acknowledge that they didn’t have all the answers. Being vulnerable with your teams and acknowledging the difficulties you’re facing not only helps build trust, it also allows for a more collaborative work environment.
Change may be constant, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to accept. But the events of the last year have shown me that both the ups and the downs will eventually pass — what matters is what you take away from the process.
Your personal leadership style will impact how you deal with change, says Julita Haber, a clinical assistant professor of organizational behavior at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business. Transformational leaders focus on the big picture, while transactional leaders approach things with a methodical, step-by-step approach. Both can be effective, but knowing which one you are will help you feel more adept at navigating change.
When learning to be more flexible, one helpful strategy is being clear about the outcome you want to achieve. Keeping your core values in sight will make you more resilient to other shifts — ”you want to actually come up with your purpose in life and how the change will help you fulfill your ultimate goals,” Haber says.
Disorder is certainly uncomfortable, especially for those of us who thrive on logic, organization and systems. But uncertainty and messiness are sometimes unavoidable. Learning not just to live with what is outside your control, but actually embrace it, will make you resilient for whatever life throws at you next.