The past few years have taught us well: Chaos is relentless. We’ve had a global pandemic. Supply chain upheavals. An army of quiet quitters (and some vocal ones, too). Oh, and here comes ChatGPT to add its own brand of disruption. And that’s not counting the “lesser” chaos that comes with the day-to-day management of people.
For most leaders, the impulse is to put your head down, hope the storm passes you by, and look for a brighter day tomorrow. But Gary Harpst says you’re looking at chaos all wrong. It’s inevitable, it’s not a “bad thing,” and we’re best served by leaning into it.
“Every one of us is capable of bringing order out of chaos,” says Harpst, author of Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others. “In fact, we need chaos. It’s a raw material resource that we can transform into purpose and growth. Our job as leaders is to facilitate this transformation in ourselves and in our teams.”
So, how do we cope with and master chaos? Here are a few tips:
Clarify the why behind what you’re doing.
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. “A world with too many opportunities to pursue is just another form of chaos,” says Harpst. “Just be sure that the vision or purpose you choose is not too vague. When this happens, it is difficult to guide resource allocation in a way that gets results.”
Stop using chaos as an excuse to be a victim.
For example, a manager might say, “I can’t promise to build the new training program and roll it out by the end of the first quarter, because I get so many requests for custom reports and other support issues. I can’t plan my work. Left unchallenged, this kind of thinking justifies living with chaos instead of managing it,” asserts Harpst. “Of course, we can’t control everything, but there is great power in making a plan, finding solutions when problems arise, and moving forward always.”
Be realistic: Are you creating your own chaos?
It’s uncomfortable to probe the turmoil of our desires, ideas, and half-formed thoughts. Yet not doing so can keep us in a vicious cycle of wanting things and not doing what it takes to get them. For example, we may not want to make the cold calls required to grow our sales, but not doing so leads to chaos—we make less money, we compromise our performance record, and we put our jobs in jeopardy.
Learn to love your employees.
Yes, you read that right. Harpst says love is the only force powerful enough to get people to subsume their individual desires and pull together to work toward a mission. That means getting to know them as individuals, forgiving their screwups, and treating them right—yes, even if they don’t reciprocate. “Just as there must be a form of energy holding together the trillions of atoms that make up a single cell in the body, there must also be a force uniting team members,” he says. “In the network of human relationships that make up a great organization, love is that bonding force. It fuels our capacity to bring chaos into order.”
Help people align their desires with their actions.
When trying to sort out the chaos of human interactions, leaders are more effective when they get to the root of what motivates people. Desire is what drives us to create what’s worth creating—be that an inspired organization, a work of art, or the next technology breakthrough. “Deep down, what do your employees really want?” asks Harpst. “The truth is, they may not know. Helping them figure it out fuels our capacity to bring chaos into order. It’s also the best way to care for them and show them the kind of love they need to develop their skills and thrive.”
Leverage chaos to get people to act.
Disruptions and crises have a way of aligning people’s desires with their actions. An example could be the rise of a major competitive threat or a big new product rollout that shakes up the status quo. These unifying times of focus can be fear-based, or they can be inspirational. They can help us get aligned internally and with other people.
“Just don’t fall into complacency afterward,” says Harpst. “Order is easier to create than to keep. As the crisis passes, the aligning force dissipates, internal misalignments surface, and organizational entropy sets in. A leader’s challenge is to help people who are not doing what they say they want to do. Be prepared to call them on it and help them get back on track.”
Overcoming chaos brings new chaos.
So, get used to it. Chaos always exists. Bringing order to one level of chaos creates another level that must be managed. “Think about a start-up or a business that launches a new product or service experience,” says Harpst. “The first chaos mastery involves figuring out how to design, build, and launch something of value to a customer. But once launched, that product needs its own ecosystem for selling and supporting it. That second phase lasts much longer than the first phase and has new categories of ongoing chaos that must be managed.”
Ultimately, we should think of chaos as a force that refines us all, says Harpst. “It’s not something to dread,” he asserts. “When you accept that chaos is inevitable, it allows you to focus on managing it and leveraging it to bring out the best in yourself and others, rather than fearfully wondering when it might turn up again.”
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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