Today’s leaders are well acquainted with chaos. While most businesses (hopefully!) enjoy success and smooth sailing, they also face periods of disruption, upheaval, discord, and extreme stress. Leaders tend to approach these chaos cycles by putting their heads down and hoping the storm passes with minimal fallout. But Gary Harpst has a question: What if chaos isn’t a destructive force that victimizes us, but rather a refining force we are meant to harness, conquer, and transform into some purpose of our choosing?
“Struggling with chaos is not a means to an end; it is an end unto itself,” says Harpst, author of Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others. “We are designed to master chaos and created to be creators. In the process, we learn more about ourselves and the universe. We grow and change. We find meaning and even experience great joy.”
Harpst’s new book, Built to Beat Chaos, is a blueprint for mastering organizational turmoil in a way that makes companies strong, stable, and purpose-driven; instills great leadership habits; and engages employees in ways that help them grow and thrive. While the book is based on biblical principles, people of all faiths (or even none) can benefit.
“Similar to the laws of physics, human relationships are governed by laws that transcend all of our world views,” says Harpst. “Honesty, love, care, responsibility, accountability, patience, and kindness are all basic building blocks of families, businesses, and society itself. Despite our differences, we are alike in the desire to discover the truth and align our lives around it.”
Built to Beat Chaos has three sections.
- Part I focuses on key biblical truths about human design. Harpst says we must come to grips with these truths if we’re to lead ourselves and others effectively.
- Part II describes what leaders need to do to establish a framework for coordinating and communicating among a growing number of people. Its managerial best practices address the tendency of humans to get distracted and lose focus.
- Part III focuses on how to reinforce the behaviors that allow people to work together effectively. This relational dimension eventually sidetracks all organizations (and even nations).
“The level of performance described in the book isn’t easy, and leaders must choose to rise to the occasion,” says Harpst. “The challenge is to nurture self-leadership and teamwork collectively, establishing rhythms to keep things running smoothly while planning for and dealing with the chaos that erupts when people come together to do great things.”
Read on for some insights on beating chaos in your organization and life.
You were created to overcome chaos.
Chaos is a raw material resource that has not yet been bent to your purpose—it’s not your enemy. Transforming chaos into order is the heart of your job. Believing you are a victim of chaos is one of the worst mistakes you can make, says Harpst. That cripples you on every front.
Understanding your purpose is the critical first step.
The first step in conquering organizational chaos and building strong teams is identifying the “why” behind everything you do. Leaders and employees must be clear on purpose to focus on the problems that must be solved. Otherwise, the chaos of pursuing too many opportunities will slow and distract you.
“What holds my team together?” is the most important question for leaders to answer.
We know that electromagnetic energy holds together the trillions of atoms that make up a single cell in the body. But what unites a team? Answering this question is what it means to be a leader. You cannot be effective without dedicating your time, energy, and skill to building this oneness.
What makes leadership so challenging and rewarding is that, unlike cells in the human body, the people who make up organizations are not governed by the laws of physics. In fact, human desire is the only thing in the universe that is not subject to the laws of physics. Which is why…
Understanding your (and your employees’) desires keeps everyone on track.
Desire is a double-edged sword. It fuels our capacity to bring chaos into order. It drives us to create what’s worth creating, be that an inspired organization, a work of art, or the next technology breakthrough. But left unchecked, desire can be destructive.
“The leader’s job is to understand the dual nature of desire. Deep down, what is it you want? What is it your employees want?”
The leader’s job is to understand the dual nature of desire. Deep down, what is it you want? What is it your employees want? Knowing the answer allows leaders and employees alike to draw on this inner power source to think, feel, and act in ways that help us a) thrive and b) stay aligned with each other.
“We are more effective leaders when we try to get to the root of what motivates people,” says Harpst. “Often, the people involved benefit from bringing their underlying desires to the surface, because sometimes they are unaware of their effect on their actions. And when I say ‘they,’ I also mean ‘me.’”
Order is much easier to create than to keep.
In his book, Harpst describes several stumbling blocks that can trip up growing organizations and cause things to spiral into chaos.
- The Growth Deception. Growth in headcount increases in a linear fashion, but communication complexity grows geometrically. This erodes the ability to stay aligned in imperceptible ways that deceive leaders.
- Tyranny of the Urgent. This occurs when we know what to do, but many other urgent things are happening, and we think we’ll have time to do the right thing “tomorrow.” We fall into this trap because our brains go into automatic mode when pressed for time. We are usually right that we can push off an important item one day, but one day becomes five, then thirty, and we wake up and have a crisis on our hands.
- The Skill Deception. As an organization grows, leadership expertise requirements also grow in five areas: self, functional, project, process, and strategic. The deception comes in when skill requirements are rising with complexity, but it is not obvious to leaders that the gap is widening.
“These are just a few of the hurdles that work against leaders,” says Harpst. “The business of learning and growing is never done. If we don’t humbly acknowledge this reality, and put systems in place to mitigate the challenges, we’ll never be able to stay ahead of chaos.”
Leaders need a strong, habit-reinforcing system to follow.
For an organization to scale, some sort of leadership system must be deployed. Leaders must master the managerial process dimension, which involves utilizing the latest best practices and technology to enable employees to determine their shared purpose and stay aligned and engaged while they pursue that purpose.
A leadership system outlines the habits an organization needs to integrate and manage all this complexity. They include forming a vision, managing change, balancing the allocation of resources between operating and strategic change, defining purpose, running meetings, hiring, and firing, and measuring outcomes. (Part II of Harpst’s book delves into building these habits.)
Leaders who genuinely care get the best results.
Younger generations of workers (and everyone else, really) want leaders who truly care about them and their well-being. Harpst says that caring comes down to showing your employees unconditional love—also called agape. It’s about relating to someone with their best interests in mind, regardless of their response.
“It can be challenging to treat others right regardless of how they treat you,” says Harpst. “But the alternative is to go through life in reaction mode. Keep working at this. You won’t get it right every time, but when you do, you’ll be doing the best for your employees and for yourself.”
Strong relationships are built one-on-one.
All interactions need to count. A primary goal is to get the right people engaged and ensure they are using their abilities to contribute to the purposes of the organization (and their own need to win). Plan to spend significant time with all your employees. Whether you meet with them in a formal meeting, a phone call, an email, or a hallway conversation, be present, listen as much as you speak, and ensure the interaction is high-quality.
The goal is to achieve ‘oneness.’
People have a God-given desire to win, but we can’t attain most of the things we want by ourselves. That is why leaders must help employees form a unified team. Oneness means:
- the right people with the right skills are on the team;
- people have strong relationships built on honest and open communication;
- the team mission and goals are clear, and everyone does their part to support those goals;
- group chemistry overcomes the normal human disputes, and personality differences and conflicts are resolved in healthy ways.
“The ultimate definition of oneness is a hard-core commitment to do what it takes to reach shared goals,” says Harpst. “This is the ultimate end. As people struggle to achieve a deep commitment, they experience the joy of oneness. The journey is difficult, but there is nothing like fighting that battle together.”
“Battling against chaos—doing what we were designed to do over and over as we discover purpose and reach for something bigger than ourselves—is the real source of our satisfaction and growth.”
Achieving our goals alone isn’t what makes us happy, says Harpst. Battling against chaos—doing what we were designed to do over and over as we discover purpose and reach for something bigger than ourselves—is the real source of our satisfaction and growth. But we can’t do it (or anything at all) alone.
“Just as the laws of physics hold our atoms together, the laws of human relationships, facilitated by great leadership, hold self, families, organizations, and societies together and help them thrive,” says Harpst. “We’re not perfect; we don’t always get relationships right. But when we are at our best, we can make a real difference in our organizations and our world.”
Gary Harpst is the author of Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others. He is the founder and CEO of LeadFirst. LeadFirst was founded in 2000 (as Six Disciplines) with a mission of building effective leaders and helping small and mid-size companies manage change, grow, and execute. Having been a CEO for 40 years, Gary has experienced the challenges of every aspect of business ownership, from start-up to rapid growth to acquiring other companies to being acquired. (Solomon Software, which he co-founded, was purchased by Great Plains and ultimately sold to Microsoft.) He is a keynote speaker, writer, and teacher whose areas of focus include leadership, business, and the integration of faith at work. He has been recognized as one of the Top 100 of the nation’s top thought-leaders in management and leadership by Leadership Excellence magazine. In addition to Built to Beat Chaos, he has written two other books: Six Disciplines for Excellence and Execution Revolution. Learn more at leadfirst.ai.
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