Avoiding the Vortex

vortexPerhaps one of the greatest risks for leaders is being sucked into the vortex of the overwhelmed. All of the details, ideas, requirements, expectations, and possibilities that spin around a leader on a daily basis can have a pretty strong gravitational pull. How do you keep this force from dragging you under, or at the very least pulling energy away from your supposed strategic priorities? In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the key is to keep your focus on “the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

That has a nice ring to it, but how exactly do you do that? It’s a little like trying to stand on one leg. When you keep your focus locked on a fixed spot it is much easier to maintain your balance than if you are looking at everything going on around you. So what is the fixed spot? You guessed it . . . the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Make no mistake, simple is not the same as easy. It takes a lot of discipline to sort through all the stuff of leadership to identify the one, two or three overriding goals on which to remain focused. And identifying those goals doesn’t mean you won’t still have to deal with a myriad of questions, opportunities and challenges on a daily basis. It simply means making decisions about those things becomes much easier. You no longer feel the pull of every rabbit trail. You know your path forward and have identified which tasks belong to you alone and which you can delegate. And with each step toward “the other side”, the pull from the vortex of the overwhelmed lessens.

It is also important to recognize that passing through the vortex is a daily journey. Just because you were able to focus on your simple goals last week doesn’t mean some unexpected variable won’t pull you off course this week. The antidote? Start each week, each day, by casting your eyes on your point of focus — your simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Can’t narrow your priorities down to no more than three? Way too much on your plate to even consider that? If you can’t prioritize, then the vortex of the overwhelmed has already won. End of discussion.

But for those of you willing to focus on the simple path through the complexity of leadership . . . I’ll see you on the other side.

Leadership is Simple…


. . . Which is not at all the same as saying it’s easy. But the fact of the matter is, there is a strong tendency among leaders to make their job too complex. It is not hard to see how it happens. Typically as an individual advances through a variety of management roles in an organization, they deal with an increasing number of details, complex variables and layers of “gray” in their decision-making. As challenging as these tasks may be, they also tend to be quantifiable. You can check them off the to do list, and measure the impact of the effort. You can clearly point to what you have accomplished in the last quarter, or last year. In some ways, dealing with quantifiable complexity is easier.

Leadership, at least at it’s most effective, is about the simplicity on the other side of complexity. What, exactly, does that mean? Simon Sinek does a great job of capturing this concept in his Ted Talk on how great leaders inspire action. As Mr. Sinek points out, great leadership is about focusing on the “why”, it is about connecting with people who believe what you believe. Of course, to do that, you have to be really clear on what you believe — and be able to explain it in a sound bite, not a 47-page dissertation. Therein lies the simplicity, and the challenge, of good leadership.

Igniting people’s passion with an inspiring vision, communicating a clear and innovative strategy, building a culture of trust and commitment . . . these leadership responsibilities are all about the why. The simpler and clearer you make these things, the more powerful they become. Unfortunately, they are rarely measurable on a short-term basis. Vision, strategy and culture are about the long term. That may sound well and good, but seriously, (according to that annoying little voice in your head) wouldn’t a real leader be worrying about bigger more complex things than that?!? Nope.

Sure, a leader is responsible for the numbers, but if the vision, strategy and culture are in a good spot, the numbers will be too. Yes, there has to accountability, but if your staff know why they are doing what they are doing, accountability becomes less of a struggle. When people are inspired — which happens when they connect at a gut-deep level with your vision, strategy and culture— they can accomplish amazing things. And here’s your tip for the day: people rarely connect at a gut-deep level with a vision and strategy that takes 15 minutes and 8 qualifiers to explain. Keep it simple! I know it’s hard . . . but you’re a leader, you’re up to the challenge.