Surviving Leadership

Author Laurence Gonzales, who wrote the book Deep Survival, has studied disasters such as earthquakes, plane crashes, climbing accidents and terrorist attacks to learn about survival.


Gonzalez dissects the psychological and spiritual transformations of people who seem to beat the odds against nature and science.


He has found that survivors have several common traits. They tend to:


  • View themselves as survivors, not victims (they aren’t whiners)
  • Get through the denial stage quickly and accept the situation
  • Show humility and know what they are capable of
  • Have strong family bonds and a desire to be reunited with loved ones
  • Ignore the rules and think independently


When two hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, hundreds of workers were trapped in the towers. Gonzales says security told many of them to stay put and wait to be rescued. Most of the people who listened lost their lives. Those who ignored the announcements and didn’t wait were able to escape.


How do leaders survive intellectually? A plane crash or tsunami doesn’t have to occur for uncertainty and fright to envelop our minds and spirits. You need not be buried in the rubble of an earthquake for three days to develop the characteristics of a survivor.


Art Petty, a leadership and management consultant, says that for teams and organizations that freeze-frame and create a “hunker down” atmosphere, focusing on risk instead of opportunity predominates and walls and barriers go up to keep the outside world “safely” outside.


“Fear takes up permanent residence in the workplace environment and people withdraw from ideation and innovation, and focus on the instinctual drive to survive,” writes Petty. “This stop-motion reaction to uncertainty and ambiguity is almost always a formula to accelerate decline as investments shrivel, learning and experimentation disappear and process begets more process in a futile attempt to impose internal order in response to a chaotic external environment. At this point, leadership has failed.”


How can this failed leadership get out of its own way and turn things around? Petty says it is possible to flip uncertainty and ambiguity upside down. He says acknowledging insecurity and shifting towards new ideas is important.


Petty also advises leaders to ask three questions:


  • What is working?
  • What isn’t working?
  • What do we need to do?


Experience tells us that leadership can be chaotic, but you can survive the frenzy with a blend of traits that are both pragmatic and intellectual.

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