How to Turn the Tide in the New Year by Learning From the Last

Off the southeastern shore of Nova Scotia lies a famous body of water known as the Bay of Fundy. Its fame derives from its massive tides. Where normal tides across the globe fall from peak to ebb a hardly noticeable three feet, water in the Bay of Fundy drops an astounding 52. At its low, it quite literally lays bare the ocean floor, and offers a flipped view from the way we typically think of oceans. Our standard view disproportionately focuses on surface things. We see waves, and in particular the damage they can do, especially when they reach tsunami proportions–not unlike this past year and its repeated tidal waves of hardship, surprise, and setback to many organizations. But the Bay of Fundy reminds us that such extremes offer not just one but two striking views: not just the uncertainty on the surface but also an important view of the fundamentals underneath.

As we enter a new year, there is renewed hope of calmer seas for businesses and their leaders. We want relief now, but the reality is it will take time and more readiness. That’s why right now is our Bay of Fundy moment, a chance to see what the past year has laid bare about what really drives our businesses beyond the obvious. A chance to take stock of what gives our organizations and us resiliency, strength, and purpose. Here are three ways you can seize this moment and reap the knowledge you need to thrive in the coming year.

A Strength Test

It’s common to say leaders and their teams will emerge stronger from vertigo-inducing gyrations of 2020. But proving that means understanding your actual source of strength–not what you did but the place you drew the most strength from. Was it people? Was it purpose? The idea of this strength test is to take a deeper than normal probe. In doing so, you better the odds of understanding what it is that could spawn the next set of actions and the ones after that. But leaders who are thriving in these uncertain times say it’s more still. They consistently say that true strength emerges when those underlying sources of strength and their uses are consciously tied to a clarity of purpose and shared across the organization. It’s not just “what” gives you strength; it’s how you deploy it and why.

Follow the Leader

When an organization gets hit hard, the instinctive reaction of many is to turn to the leader for a solution, for relief, for a miracle. We’ve been repeatedly fed a myth of a superhuman, a myth that too often has us confusing the leader, that is to say the person with the senior title, with leadership. For most organizations, 2020 offered ample proof that we must toss out that myth.

We can begin by playing follow-the-leader in a whole new way. Rather than defaulting to the person in charge, look at those who led by their actions. Who was the source of insight and ideas? Who was proactive with a fix, a warning, a way forward? Who guided others to lead and succeed? If you identify leadership, not just the leaders, chances are you’ll begin to see that what worked came from multiple sources, and was in truth co-led and co-created. In the coming year, double down on that. 

Kill the Company

The past year was bruising for nearly all of us. It was starkly revealing as well. As leaders and teams, it’s hard to see our weaknesses and vulnerabilities laid bare. Often, we just want it to go away. But now is the perfect time to ask consultant and author Lisa Bodell’s centering question: How could we kill the company? Odd as it sounds, it’s that needed push to go further, to see at a more fundamental level where you are still exposed. As Bodell says, it forces honesty about what isn’t working and allows room for what does. 

Turning the tide in the new year will require strength, collective leadership, and truth telling, all challenging things in any environment. Yet hard as the past year has been, we’ve never been in a better position to embrace these things.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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