Best laid plans of mice and men that go wrong. This pretty much sums up what happens to many of us. There are unforeseen events that totally blindside us, leaving us feeling powerless and confused. But this is exactly the stuff of leadership. True leadership always begins with self-leadership. It means being able to take whatever life throws at you and coming back up even better. It often involves adapting to a new reality, a different setting, or an unpredictable circumstance.
Ida Fazila’s essay, Leveraging Uncertainty and Unlocking Your Best Self, contains a real life anecdote showing how a mysterious health concern turned her life upside down. Change is the permanent state of life. But how we face being constantly disrupted shows the level of our leadership. The notion of impermanence is something that colors the entire cultural, economic, and psychological landscape. We simply need to learn new ways to adapt to these changes or to use the existing skills we have the best we can. The full essay of Fazila, who was the publishing manager of the Center for Asia Leadership, can be found in Leaders in Development: Enhancing Your Leadership Effectiveness in a Changing World.
The Best Birthday Gift Ever
Throughout the ALE program, I realized that the leadership lessons we learned could be applied in every area of life, not just in the workplace. As I reflected on the challenges that I have faced and overcome, I remembered that at one point, I went through a life-changing phase that forced me to adapt to unexpected changes. Five years ago, I fell sick and underwent a fairly routine surgical procedure, one day after my birthday. At the time, I thought God must have had a wonderful sense of humor for giving me this “birth-day present.” The surgery went well, but afterward, the “adventure” began. About a week after my surgery, I woke up one day feeling different, with mysterious health symptoms. I thought they were post surgery complications or allergic reactions to my medications. I was worried, but I assumed that the symptoms would subside after a while. Alas, that did not happen. I then went to see my surgeon, but he could not provide a concrete answer.
The incident led to a medical investigation along the lines of those in the TV show House, involving a series of visits to the hospital for tests and follow-ups, until finally, I received my diagnosis. I was not prepared for the agonizing uncertainty of this process, and it slowly dawned upon me that despite all our planning, we are never really in control. When a crisis happens, there is no other way to face it except to adapt. Due to my condition, I was unable to do several things that I used to enjoy. Simple everyday tasks that I had taken for granted became challenges, and it was an uphill battle to navigate my life while dealing with the side effects of different medications, on top of holding a demanding full-time job. This situation lasted for two years. I had no choice but to re-evaluate my daily routine in order to cope with its difficulties. My struggles came to mind during Mr. Kim’s session, in which he talked about “going on the balcony,” a practice promoted by the renowned adaptive leadership expert, Ronald A. Heifetz. Mr. Kim encouraged us to apply the technique when facing a challenging situation, as it allows one to step back and reflect. By looking at their current situations “from a balcony,” leaders can gain a different perspective on their own actions and the activities of the people around them.
After undergoing treatment, I am now in remission, and I have developed a new view and attitude toward life. Based on this experience, I feel that going through a personal adaptive challenge is similar to exercising leadership as a change agent. In both cases, one must face reality and deal with uncertainty as the norm, develop a big picture mentality, and orchestrate a process of adaptive change to harness creative problem solving in times of adversity. As surprising as it may sound, I am grateful for my illness. The experience taught me adaptability, humility, empathy, patience, and mindfulness. It was, indeed, the best birthday gift ever. One day, I hope to share my experience with those in a similar situation and help them go through their own health challenges.
By Ida Fazila Ismail