transition“Write something that connects to FutureFit” was the unambiguous instruction from our eZine Editor and if there is one thing I have learnt in writing it is that you listen to what your editor says. So, there was little room to manoeuvre as I considered exactly what thread to tug on to produce something that would satisfy my demanding (but I hasten to add, understanding) Editor.

Writing something on FutureFit is not a problem; in fact the bulk of the countless words I have served up over time have been on precisely that topic – being FutureFit. However, as I considered this article, there seemed to be a ‘hard to ignore’ situation that promised a rich yield of lessons and insights were I to explore it in the light of my Editors demand…sorry, my Editors ‘request’. The problem is that this ‘situation’ is both personal and very current and one that I suspect is far from over in the lessons it promises to deliver. Should I not wait until it is over before extracting the learnings? Would it not be premature to attempt to surface lessons in being futurefit from a situation that clearly has some way to go? These were valid speed bumps but nonetheless I have decided to use my current situation as the basis for this article sure that there are already some valuable insights to be gleaned and that there will doubtlessly be many more that will clamour to be articulated further down the road.

Being future-fit requires learning to master transitions. After all, leading in an exponentially changing world means that as a leader, you will be constantly leading in what might seem like living in a tumble-dry machine. Savvy leaders know that periods of uninterrupted calm and stability are the exception and not the norm and they are okay with this reality. Understanding how to recognise, initiate, survive and thrive in transitions is the real work of contemporary leadership. It sounds so obvious and yet I constantly encounter leaders whose energies and attention is more focused on preserving the past or the status quo rather than leading their people and organisation through the change that both confronts and invites them – the change that is the gateway to their tomorrow. I think you know what I mean in saying this and I am sure you can recall leaders who fit this description.

Transitions are the dumbbells for being future-fit. To benefit from them (dumbbells) you have to pick them up, use them smartly and in spite of the ensuing pain, know that as you use them, they are helping you get into shape. They are helping you build the strength needed. Transitions serve the same purpose for any leader serious about leading in a changing world. Transition by very definition is to exit one thing to enter another; it is a leaving the old to experience the new; it is about a changing order of things, about a need to adjust mind-sets and on-board new skill-sets. Transitions are the no-mans land between what was and what is to become. It is difficult terrain to traverse but if one is to move forward, this terrain is simply not optional. It is the terrain of leadership.

So, what you might be thinking, has all this to do with this Writer’s story as alluded too earlier? Well, at this time in my journey, one that is shared, my wife and I are going through a major transition as we pack-up our lives in South Africa for a (temporary) life in the UK. Seconded for a period (most likely around three years) to the UK, I am learning an awful lot about transitions – and as transitions relate to leadership, about leadership.

The learning is far from over just as the transition is far from over and so I have little doubt that there is a great deal more learning that awaits. But let me share with you some of what I am learning in the here and now whilst reserving the right to revisit this list and add to it as the journey unfolds. It is personal learning that I think holds some relevance and hopefully some value for your own leadership practice.

Transitions are fundamentally paradoxical and here are three transition paradoxes that I am discovering in making this move:

Transitions require that you live forwards – but invite pauses to look backwards.

There are aspects to transitions that can be overwhelming and that drain energy. I have found that looking forwards, anticipating what lies ahead, unlocks a source of energy that is required to ‘get you there’. Focusing on the horizon, training your mind on the unfolding future is a way to keep moving forward. The future-focus provides is the engine that propels you forwards and provides the momentum you need. However, there is also the invitation – the need to pause and look backwards. To look at what is being left behind, to look at what it is that you are moving from. Pausing in the midst of moving forward can lead to a stall – and that is the ‘danger’. That stall is more likely if what it is you are moving from is something that is safe, secure or held with affection. The pause to look back can bring with it deep emotions that make moving forward difficult. It is thus tempting to not pause, to not look back in order to avoid dealing with the emotional turmoil but, I think that looking back is essential ‘work’ to moving forward in a healthy manner. I recall a wise mentor of mine who had a sign in her office that stated: ‘What are you living from – what are you living towards?’. It captures the duel pull that is life’s journey and living in this tension in a healthy manner is a large part of what life is all about. The tension between these two polarities is what we label ‘transitions’

Transitions require you keep the big picture in mind – but are best managed in smaller blocks

In order to ‘keep moving forward’ and to maintain your momentum, keeping the big picture in mind is important. It goes to a sense of purpose – of why you have initiated the transition in the first place, assuming of course that you have initiated the transition, which isn’t always the case. The big picture fuels a sense of purpose and provides perspective to what is happening. However, ‘managing’ the actual transition requires a ‘here and now’ focus, a concentration on the next step to be taken and a sense of small, consistent actions. In the personal transition in which I am involved, my wife has a mantra of ‘three day blocks’ – a focus on what needs to happen in the next three days. It has proved a sensible and effective way to tackle something that otherwise threatens to overwhelm. It has brought a sense of sanity, of control to a process where it would be easy to lose one’s way. Has I have seen a mountain of things needing to be done reduced bit by bit through the ‘three day block’ approach I have become a believer and now obediently fall into line with whatever my instructions for any particular three day block. It is a habit that I realise I might live to regret post the transition!

Transitions are essentially personal but also communal

Transitions are played out in the inner ‘personal arena’. One has to take responsibility for one’s emotions, actions and attitudes throughout the transition. However, as much as it plays out in one’s personal space, the effect of the transition is felt and experienced by many. Empathy for what this means is important. In my case ‘my transition’ is felt keenly by family and friends, a ripple that extends to colleagues, clients etc…Smart leaders leading through transitions understand the multiple impact that the particular transition has on a variety of stakeholders. Assuming the ripple is experienced in the same way is a real danger as it is not; the transition plays out differently for different people and groups and it is the leaders responsibility to be aware of this and acknowledge it. Moving to the UK means different things to each of our three children: for the one who lives in the USA, it means we are moving closer; for a recently married daughter in Cape Town it means that ‘home’ really is now Cape Town, as it should be; and for the youngest who was still living at home, it means a leaving of the nest…finally! (To the rumour doing the rounds that the underpinning motivation for our move was to get the youngest out the nest… no comment).

Transitions are invariable difficult. They are also the increasing common terrain that leaders inhabit. As my wife and I undertake this move to the UK I am learning a great deal about the reality of living through a transitional phase. And therein sits a good note on which to conclude: transitions are indeed ‘a phase’. There is a beginning and an end to any transition. However, there is paradoxically a relentless on-going dynamic that characterises transitions and for the leader, the waves of transitions are coming in sets closer together and bigger than ever before.

Learning how to negotiate them and ride those waves is the demanding work of leading in a forever-changing world.

Surf’s up.

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