Overcoming Leadership Fog

by Stephen T. Messenger

January 27, 2021

I always get motivated about a new leadership opportunity.  It’s exciting to know that I’ll be at the tip of the spear and leading innovative men and women to tackle a challenging project or assignment.  I was once newly assigned at a Fortune 500 distribution center to lead an outbound warehouse shipping team.  We were responsible for loading up to fifty trucks per shift headed to various stores.  I prepared well: conducting research, reading books that helped me see the big picture, talking to others with similar experience, and outlining a vision.  I stepped into my position with confidence and gusto!  But then the leadership fog set in.  Amidst a sea of personality conflicts and preexisting discontentment, I struggled to lead through adversity.  When a leader has a clear vision yet encounters unforeseen complications, the only antidote is fortitude.

The great Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz talks about the fog and friction of war.  By fog he means the lack of information on the battlefield and the challenge of using information at hand.  Friction he defines as the intersection of chance and action and the “force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.”  He further talks about war as two wrestlers vying for a position of advantage over the other.  On the battlefield a commander deals with a lack of information, an element of chance, and an enemy who has a vote against your plans.  All too often, it feels like leadership is a wrestling match.

Perhaps you’ve encountered the same challenges I have: leaders who don’t want to take charge; subordinates who don’t want to follow; workers who don’t want to perform, or disruptive personalities that cause you to spend eighty percent of your time on twenty percent of your problems.  My leadership difficulties manifested through an overly apathetic team who was not ready to embrace change or improve their performance.  I’ve also in my career encountered exceedingly enthusiastic team members who have recklessly damaged the vision by leaning too far in.  That, in addition to yes men, insubordination, angry followers, and a myriad of personalities, can destroy a team from the inside.  At the end of the day, it sure felt like I was wrestling with someone… and at times was ready to tap out.

Leaders, however, do not give up.  They have to endure to achieve their vision and a better state of affairs.  Leadership is lonely at times, and often no help is coming.  After all, you were put in charge to solve these problems, not call for assistance.  Leaders with the proper vision who face internal and external fog and friction have to demonstrate steady endurance, leverage trusted advisors, and maintain an optimistic attitude.

Steady Endurance.  I’ve run a marathon where I went out too strong in the beginning and at mile twenty my body shut down.  With little to no energy, I was six miles from the finish line with the goal of completion fading rapidly.  But I retained my original desire from months ago to finish the marathon.  I had put in the work, and I only had to endure.  Six painful miles of walking later, I met my goal.  Leaders, when they know their visions will demonstrate eventual success, have to endure.  Change is difficult and there will usually be passive and active resistance, organizational rigidity, and the fog and friction of life.  However, leaders persevere by placing one foot in in front of the other and never give up.

Trusted advisors.  To stay the course, you must know that your vision is correct.  However, this is impossible without predicting the future.  To align the vision correctly, you need to surround yourself with a team of trusted advisors, preferably ones who think differently than you.  They act in two ways.  The first is to bounce around ideas and move towards better decisions.  The second is to continuously provide input to reframe the vision and adjust as needed.  In the book Team of Rivals, historian Doris Goodwin describes Abraham Lincoln’s decision to take his opponents after the election and make them cabinet secretaries.  His trusted advisors consisted of those who possessed vastly different beliefs of the President, and he used them to make the best decisions and confirm his vision for the country.   

Optimistic attitude.  Leadership is challenging, and it is easy to question your leadership when the fog rolls in.  If you have a well thought out plan, validated by trusted advisors, you need to lean on optimism.  Admiral James Stockdale, American fighter pilot and eight-year resident of Vietnam’s Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp, survived by being an optimist.  The Stockdale Paradox argues that a leader must balance the enduring faith of eventual victory with the ability to face your current and brutal reality.  A leader will not prevail without both halves.  Admiral Stockdale used this to survive.  Organizational leaders in peacetime use this to thrive.  When everything seems to be going wrong with your well thought out plan, an optimistic attitude will both light an internal flame and an external following.  Leading others is never easy, but followers gravitate towards positive people and confident intelligence.

As a reminder, these three qualities will only work if your vision will help the organization.  It is critical to have a plan which will move the team forward, or else your steady endurance will drive you into failure.  I have seen many leaders with a poor vision dig in with unwavering endurance, thinking they were doing the right thing, yet walk down a path to disaster.  This is why you must leverage your trusted advisors to help you craft a plan and make decisions which are collectively beneficial.  While no help may be coming from your boss, there should be plenty of help from within your team.  Then use your charisma and positivity to lead well.

No matter how many books your read, once you are in the trenches of leadership you encounter unanticipated fog and friction.  If you have a vision and a plan that will take your team to the next level, you must demonstrate fortitude to succeed.  In my distribution experience, I knew the team had to improve and aggressively stayed the course to hold people accountable.  It was not pleasant, but over time, the problems began to fade, and the team’s performance increased.  By leveraging steady endurance, trusted advisors, and an optimistic attitude, leaders can overcome the friction needed to raise the level of any organization.

One thought on “Overcoming Leadership Fog

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