Lead? Now? You’ve got to be kidding.

I bet you’ve gotten more emails and other communications in the last week urging you to lead than you’ve gotten in the sum total of your prior life. Unless you’re subscribed to Seth Godin’s list, in which case you’ve always gotten a steady drip of being urged to lead from him. Even so, there’s an outbreak of messaging around this idea that we all need to step up and lead.

I want to do what I can to flatten the curve here.

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I’ve found this tidal wave of “lead, Lead, LEAD DAMMIT!” messaging paralyzing. This is not a criticism of the messaging at all. It’s a good message! Thank you to all who have amplified it.

But the volume of the messaging does feel like it tracks, in an odd way, the exponential growth path the coronavirus itself may follow. It was a background hum for a few weeks and then BAM! last week my inbox and Twitter feed was 100% saturated with 130-decibel versions of this message.

This past week I got paralyzed and retreated into the most comforting form of forward progress I could, which was mocking up the illustrations for the third edition of The Positioning Manual, along with some other tasks for that project.

Did I “do leadership” last week?

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Several lenses/mental models/ideas might be helpful as we think about what leadership really is.

This, from David Baker, is one:

There’s a useful view of leadership embedded in David’s tweet: context matters. Leadership looks different depending on the context you’re operating in.

If we reflect on the idea of average velocity (Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare), that’s another useful lens to bring to bear on the idea of leadership. Leadership isn’t everybody in the world jumping into maximum-velocity action from March 16 to March 20, 2020 or sitting on the sidelines for the remainder of however long this is. The timescale to leadership action doesn’t have to be instantaneous.

Another useful lens, at least for me, is that our culture tends to have a bias towards extraversion and towards the immediate rather than the long term. Leadership doesn’t have to be everybody in the world running a webinar or getting on some sort of digital stage last week.

Again, none of this is meant as a criticism of those who did set up webinars in the last week or two! We humans are social creatures. In conditions of high uncertainty, we tend to huddle and look around to see what others are doing. What we’ll tend to see is the more courageous and extraverted among us step away from the huddled group and do something that’s visible to the rest of us.

This is one model of leadership. And it’s one we need.

It’s not the only model, though.

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Retreat and regroup: There’s social pressure for you to push forward. What you might need right now — and perhaps what’s needed by those who depend on you — is to pull back in some way so you can get stable, healthy, and strong so that you can contribute over the long haul.

What might look like leadership for you is to withdraw now so you can move forward more strongly or with more resilience in the coming months. Sort of like taking a long deep breath so you can stay underwater for longer. Don’t underestimate the strength required to retreat, regroup, and then advance. It’s a potentially valuable contribution.

Stability in chaos: This form of leadership might look like you simply doing your job with excellent, uncomplaining competence so this whole thing doesn’t get worse than it has to. You keep rowing in sync with others in the boat. You recognize that you’re an important part of a system and the system degrades when you fall out of sync and so you avoid losing composure during a difficult time.

This is a somewhat “Eastern” view of things, and it doesn’t quite fit with our Western-individualistic view of leaders as bold, decisive, extraverted, commanding individuals, but it might be the best you can offer during this time. I think it’s a valuable contribution, and worthy of being called leadership.

Mycellial leadership: Mushrooms are amazing. They start with tiny spores taking hold in a place where they can grow, and then they start building this largely subterranian network of what often looks like disgusting white mold. This is the mycellial network that just slowly, silently grows and grows and grows until one day, BOOM!, a mushroom fruiting body seems to pop up overnight.

I’ve had a few people reach out to me 1:1 and ask how I’m doing. I have a client who has written a book, circulated it quietly among his network, and is getting business inquiries as a result. Those are two examples of the mycellial approach; the first one to leadership and the second one to marketing. This form of leadership is quiet and largely invisible to the outside world. It reaches out slowly and steadily. That does not in the slightest reduce its value.

Focused inspiration: Check this guy out: https://twitter.com/minethatdata Here’s the beginning of a recent thread:

Kevin is repping an inspirational message. His audience — retail forecasters — is at ground zero for Covid disruptions. His message is a high-energy message of inspiration and encouragement; it’s interesting, relevant variations of “you got this” repeated daily via Twitter and his email list.

Kevin is focused. He’s “staying in his lane”. He’s not trying to become a 1-stop-shop for pandemic information, but he’s always integrating with the larger context — the coronavirus — that is causing his audience’s current pain. He’s reminding them that they are a critical part of a system under stress, and encouraging them to shine during a difficult moment in history.

Stay on mission: (Metaphor alert!) Right now, the culture is rightly focused on hospitals. What if what you are building looks more like a school, or a gym, or a thinktank, or a road, or anything that doesn’t look like a hospital?

Staying on mission is a form of leadership because we’ll need the school or gym or whatever you’re building when this pandemic has run its course. And it’s then that we’ll be glad you kept showing up at the construction site and working away at it. In the short term, you might be misunderstood or questioned. But medium/long term, your investment will pay dividends both for you and those you serve.

Generous guidance: Finally, offering your actual guidance or help in making decision might be your best form of leadership now. It’s tempting to assume this is the best or only form of leadership, but I hope I’ve demonstrated in this article that it’s not.

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If I may suggest a course of action here, 1) consider how you can most generously serve and 2) don’t try to copy the visible/celebrated versions of leadership you’re hearing about. If staying stable in the midst of chaos is the way you can most generously serve, and the scope of your service is your family and loved ones, please feel very good about your chosen form of leadership.

If you need to lay low for a few weeks, adjust to things, and gather your strength, then please feel good about that overlooked form of leadership.

Overall, try to maintain a healthy average velocity. Integrate with the context you’re operating in. And let your leadership be guided by generosity rather than what the culture narrowly defines as leadership.

-P