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Lost in New York – 3 Leadership Lessons

“You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown– only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.” – Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek.

The fear of being lost

Recently I experienced a fear of being lost. It helped me to reflect on leadership and change in a different way.

Picture this: just moved to New York for a 3 month’s stay in this – for me – completely new city. Exciting, thrilling isn’t it? You can imagine I have been picturing myself strolling the streets of Soho, seeing the Brooklyn Bridge and visiting MoMa ever since I decided to travel alone.

During my first week I went running through Central Park. Even though I had looked at the map and thought I had a picture of where to go, I mistakenly took a wrong turn and eventually ended up in a rough part of Harlem…without a phone, map or cash and in the pouring rain. Honestly, I wanted to feel adventurous and brave but the little girl inside me was just plain scared.

Of course, this was exactly what I should be doing here; getting lost, having new experiences, facing the unknown..Instead, irrational thoughts kept popping up in my mind. I couldn’t think clearly enough to recognize any reference points or simply ask the way.

Dealing with uncertainty as a leader

What is so fearful about being in the unknown? Leaders in organizations have to deal with uncertainty constantly. The scale and pace of change together with their highly unpredictable directions, asks for nothing but dealing with undiscovered, unfamiliar landscapes. The challenge is to navigate towards the future with the best course of action and adjusting that course as needed along the way.

From my own experience in working with leaders and being one myself, I know this is far from easy. Venturing into the unknown takes courage. Not knowing is hard. Below I share 3 basic insights about being lost and finding the way in unexplored territory, relevant to any leader who is facing uncertainty.

3 leadership lessons

1. Believe in the good intentions of others. When scared or insecure, we have the tendency to believe in our own good intentions yet forget about others’. This will help you to ask for guidance or cooperation.

2. Take little steps. Since insecurity is such an unpleasant place for us to be, we want to get out as fast as we possibly can. To be in a rush is never the answer. We might take big risks and then can’t go back. Try to appreciate and celebrate (!) the little stepping stones.

3. Be prepared to be wrong and to ‘fail forward’. We hate to be wrong. Our status is at risk and our ego wants to prevent that from happening. However, the stress of being in an uncertain situation will make us overlook crucial information or signals. Holding answers lightly and being playful and curious will help us to explore and find better directions.

Like to read or talk more about dealing with uncertainty as a leader? On a cognitive or behavioral level, tools like scenariothinking and mindful learning help to master the art of dealing with the unknown. More theoretical background can be found in neuroscience and psychology which explains why we stop behaving effectively in situations of perceived danger (such as change). Don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like to read or talk more.

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