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Here is one of the most valuable abilities for leaders in our times: becoming more comfortable in a place of ”not knowing”, in a situation of ambiguity, when facing events beyond our control. What is our “default” in those situation? We fight, resist, and hate not knowing or being vulnerable. Yet we are really learning something new when we reach the limits of what we know… In that place – and in our leadership lab – we will experience a range of emotions.

If you consider the pressure put on professionals to come up with the right answers, you understand why the fear of looking incompetent can trigger strong emotional responses. We disengage and get angry. When in one of my classes people find themselves in that predicament, I know I need to help them get rid of their familiar ways of dealing with the discomfort of “not knowing”. Their ways to react to this sense of incompetence are normally a variation of those four strategy:

  • Asking me to do the heavy lifting (“Can you do it for us?”),
  • Thretening me to report my behavior (“You can’t do this. I will talk to …. !”);
  • Continuing to ask for more concepts, techniques, data as a way of not letting go of the familiar cognitive mode,
  • Jumping into action with countermoves and other tricks in an attempt to “figure me out.”

People faced with the need to deal with the discomfort of “not knowing” will do all sorts of things except the simplest one: stop and think.

Indeed, when we face a new situation and are not sure how to act, we often succumb to the temptation to escape the challenge rather than holding ourselves in it. Yet while it might be hard to accept that we do not know what to do , it is also a place of great possibilities.

The range of emotions my students experience sometimes in my classes has the potential to distract them from the purpose of the class and I have to work to allow them to anchor themselves in their own purpose so that they can continue to be open to learning. This “emotional intelligence for learning” allow them to step up to the plate, have faith in tough times, and become creative and resourceful in finding ways to adapt and thrive in the class and – most importantly – outside of it.

I cannot move people in a state of emotional distress into learning without their permission; however I have identified four zones or stages that describe important milestones in the process of holistically guiding the process without making it feel forced or artificial.

  • Home Base: I start my work with the positive intention of growth for my students and a high regard for their ability to succeed in the hard work of leadership. This is also a place of freedom and respect for dissent, as well as recognition of my own weaknesses as an educator.
  • First Base: I need to bring them to a willingness to engage in a conversation before they can engage with the feelings the situations evoked for them. The objective of this work is simply acknowledging the willingness to talk. The questions I ask on first base are, “Are you willing to talk? What is true for you right now?”
  • Second Base: I try to bring them to the recognition of their own deeper intention for doing leadership work. The objective is to have them frame the experience as a hero’s journey of self-growth by providing them with a safety line that can help them better grip an overwhelming situation. The questions on second base are, “What’s your purpose and value when doing this work? Why is this work important to you?” This work is what Marcia Reynolds calls “evoking a desire to engage based on personal purpose.”
  • Third Base: I need to bring them towards the courage and resolve to engage. The objective of this work is to develop the courage to engage in the deeper inquiry and use the situation of distress not as a distraction but as subject matter for the class itself. The question I ask on third base is, “Are you willing to consider understanding what is happening for the sake of your own growth?” When you are taking people on an adventure of self-exploration, they might need to battle mental habits, and that battle takes courage. I emphasize the total freedom in the decision and the great opportunity to act in a controlled environment where one can take greater risk and still keep his job.
  • Back To Home Base: I acknowledge their willingness to engage in this difficult work and say something like, “I am honored that you are willing to step up to this challenge.”

What could “running the four bases” do for your ability to step into your own, current leadership challenge?