"Step with care and great tact, and remember that Life's a Great Balancing Act" (Dr Seuss, Oh, The Places You'll Go.)
Life is indeed a great balancing act as Dr Seuss's little book wisely reminds us. Sometimes it's relatively easy to maintain our balance. And sometimes it's anything but.
Whether it's a change of role or a change of pace, a change in leadership or a change in place we live and work in environments that rarely stay stable for long.
And so Dr Seuss's advice about how we step is worth reflecting on. Because how, when and where we step shapes the life we lead and the places we go.
Three interrelated steps can help us maintain balance as we explore and shape the places we (and others) can go.
Step out. It's an old but worthy saying: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." That 10,000 steps a day target for maintaining basic adult health can't be achieved without getting off the couch and taking the first step and the next 9,999 one at a time. In the same way, our aspirations for financial security, career development, educational qualifications, wellbeing, friendship or business growth require that we step out. Somewhere, sometime we have to take a first step out of our comfort zone, out of our normal routine, out of our habitual responses.
Yes, "with care and great tact", but out we must step if we are going to embrace opportunity. Stepping out implies risk and discomfort; but not doing so doesn't guarantee security or comfort either. Maintaining balance isn't about standing in one place; it's about embracing the challenge of doing so as we change and grow.
The actor Will Smith has this advice: "The first step is to say you can".
Step back. Because stepping out sounds so action-oriented, the idea of stepping back might seem counter-intuitive. But it's critical to stepping "with care and great tact" and for maintaining our balance. It's easy to be consumed by the moment and distracted by what's right in front of us (the "illusion effect"). The ability to step back, to take in the wider perspective and to reflect on the meaning of a situation and not just react is a critical skill for managing our own balance, as well as for enabling our teams and organisations to do so.
"Pause powers performance," says Kevin Cushman in The Pause Principle. That pause may be to provide space for physical and emotional renewal to ensure we stay sharp, or to ask a question that invites a different perspective. Whatever the purpose, we need the awareness and ability to take an intentional step back from the otherwise inevitable momentum that projects, problems and people can create. That momentum can become dysfunctional if we do not monitor it and the broader context.
Drawing on their experience with emergency service teams, Michelle Barton and Kathleen Sutcliffe note that: "The fact is that when we're in the middle of the action, we often get so engrossed in what we're doing, we don't notice that things have changed, or we ignore signals suggesting we should alter course."
Part of the challenge is that we don't interrupt the story we have created for ourselves. "When we are involved in a course of action, we tell ourselves a story about what is happening at present and what is likely to happen afterward," Barton and Sutcliffe say. "The more we become preoccupied with ongoing plans and activities, the more the forces of momentum tend to prevent us from reevaluating that story. In order to overcome the momentum, we have to create interruptions points at which we can ask: What's the story now? Is it the same story as before? If not, how has it changed? And how, if at all, should we adjust our actions?"
They counsel that we should allow or create interruptions that prompt reflection and a different perspective. This requires what they call "situated humility" the willingness to accept that, regardless of our confidence and/or experience, we need to be willing to accept we don't know or understand everything, and that every situation has its own variables and uncertainties.
Step up. Where stepping out implies that we initiate the step, stepping up is often imposed upon us. A new challenge or responsibility requires that we not only step out of our comfort zone but step up to operating at a new level. Sometimes "stepping up" might mean stepping back to ensure we're able to see or create a broader perspective. And sometimes stepping up is about sharing that vision or perspective. It's about being prepared to contribute more.
A recent workshop participant shared her story of having performed, very successfully, at a particular level for many years. One day she was challenged by a senior leader as to why she had not chosen to "step up" to higher level responsibilities. She was well respected, liked, and skilled, but she realised that she lacked confidence in taking on what she saw as some less pleasant tasks required at a higher level. While that's understandable, and entirely her choice, she had also come to see that by not doing so she was denying herself, her colleagues and her organisation the contributions she could make by applying her experience on a bigger stage.
Like stepping out, stepping up means taking a step into a new world. It will challenge our balance and it will feel insecure and uncertain for a time, but it also means we get to shape and create something new for ourselves and others.
A 19th Century American politician named Chauncy Depew noted that: "The first step to getting somewhere is to decide you are not going to stay where you are". That willingness to take a higher perspective is a step up in itself.
Step out, step back and step up. It won't necessarily happen in that order but, as Dr Seuss says: "Just be dextrous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left."
What's the step you need to take?
Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies
Barton, K.A. & Sutcliffe, K. (2010). Learning when to stop momentum. MIT Sloan Management Review (Spring) 51: 3
Cushman, K. (2012). The Pause Principle: Step back to lead forward.
Geisel, T.S. (1960). Oh, The Places You'll Go!
© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2017
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