Embracing Turbulence

turbulant times

“You have to skate to where the puck is going.”
Wayne Gretzky - Hockey legend


The high schooler was puzzled. How could his grandfather dismiss these modern times as merely turbulent when clearly everything was flat-out crazy?

His grandfather reiterated that while the world has grown increasingly chaotic over the last several years, he remembered times that were actually worse. Far worse.

“Yes, it seems pretty crazy when people talk about ‘post truth’ and others shake their fists at someone simply because they look different or practice a different religion,” the grandfather said. “But people my age remember perhaps the most turbulent times in recent American history: The 60s.

“We lived through massive riots and the assassinations of President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King. The National Guard turned their weapons on citizens, killing college students at Kent State. Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington all burned. It seemed surreal.”

Yet it happened – and though there are many scars, the country lived through it then, just as we will live through this current turbulence. The question becomes: How do we manage during these times? How should we manage during these turbulent times?

In my experience, turbulent times generally don’t feel good when you are in the midst of them. Like turbulence on a flight, we want to buckle up and pray for things to smooth out. What few people realize is that turbulent times create opportunities for new ways of thinking. Not in the way that those who are prompting the change might hope, but in response to those forces at work.

Turbulence is actually a necessary condition for change to happen. In systems change theory, turbulence is referred to as a “perturbation.” It is essential to understand that systems resist change. But when systems are perturbed they self-organize around a new set of conditions. It is this self-organizing concept that makes turbulent times not something to be feared, but actually embraced.

This insight about perturbation and self-organizing suggests that we should first embrace the opportunity for positive change to emerge. Clearly, running in the opposite direction or lamenting that things will never be the same will not help us visualize change as an opportunity.

Instead, we have to find the strength to think clearly about the future. And doing so quickly leads to a second point to ponder in turbulent times: Where should we focus?

The question of where to focus reminds me of that wonderful Canadian philosopher Wayne Gretzky who said, “You have to skate to where the puck is going.” If you skate to where the puck is now, you are already too late. In turbulent times, you must remain true to yourself and focus on your principles.

We may find ourselves being confronted by bullies, or by half-truths, untruths, and alt-truths, that all seem to have a stronger voice. The question to ask in the midst of all this should be, what is the RIGHT thing to do? Not how do you defeat the perturbation, not how do you beat your opponent, but what is right? By focusing on what is right, those nearby, who are also wondering what to do will be attracted to what is being modeled: the right thing to do. This kind of leadership is contagious.

For example: When confronted with bullying tactics by leaders, we often feel a knee-jerk desire to return the favor. Yell at me? I’ll yell back. Call me names? I’ve got a few of my own. But we learned long ago during our time on the playground that bullies actually like being attacked. They win when that occurs – and we lose because we fail to do what we know is right, what is true, and what is in keeping with our principles.

So when faced with turbulence, we need to redirect our compass to focus on what is right. This involves practicing compassion, listening, and deciding to do the decent thing, not that knee-jerk thing that only seeks to defeat. Responding this way in the face of bullying can be contagious. Others notice – and that allows compassion and decency, not volume or strength, to win in the long run.

For many of us, the idea of using positive psychology at a time of great turmoil may seem counter-intuitive. But a positive response to turbulence is actually the best way to help the system that is being perturbed self-organize in a new and better direction.

Case in point: When U.S. Congressman Gerald R. Ford stepped into the role of vice president in 1973, he had no inkling that he would become the 38th President of the United States a mere nine months later as President Richard Nixon resigned from office. Talk about turbulent times.

Not only was there a major loss of confidence in the office of the Chief Executive, but the Vietnam War was raging – and the United States was losing. Badly. The economy was in tatters as the nation settled into the worst recession since the Great Depression. There were protests and high levels of anxiety throughout the country. Sound familiar?

Against this backdrop, President Ford pardoned his predecessor. Ford recognized that a trial would only further debilitate the country, so he responded with compassion and decency at a time when so many were calling for blood.

This leader’s response to turbulence was designed to spur the system to self-organize and deal with economic crisis and domestic unrest. This act of positive leadership calmed the nation and allowed us to start to heal. While this decision cost him the opportunity to serve a second term, Ford never regretted the pardon. He did what he believed was the right thing, in the midst of great turbulence.

It takes courage and focus to do the right thing, to listen deeply, to display compassion, to be calm when the storm is whirling and raging. But if we find these qualities in ourselves and bring them to our leadership, others will be attracted to what we are modeling and the system will self-organize in a way that reflects the attributes displayed.

So, high schooler or grandfather, perspective is important. In our current bout of turbulence, we actually have the opportunity to come out on the other side, stronger and better. Leadership that contemplates the eventual position of that moving puck really helps us emerge in a better spot than when and where we started – and it allows us to still be true to the principles that make us who we are.