For the longest time, when I heard the word leadership, it would conjure up images of structure and order. A sense of calm and deliberate movement. There was no room for pageantry and individuality. My perception was leadership was static and had an intrinsic form and good leaders would fit themselves into that mold in order to be effective. If you are completely honest, this is probably both frightening and familiar to you.

The fact is, life is messy. There isn’t the structure and order that could make things easier for leaders. Actually, life is downright chaotic. Think back over the last year and recount how many unexpected events caused your life to take a different direction, no matter how small or large. Since we can’t separate our lives from our leadership, expecting some chaos should probably be part of our leadership model.

Of course, there has to be room for planning and focus. It is our response to the inevitable chaos of life, as it pertains to our plans and focus, that truly locates us as a leader. Here are some tips on embracing chaos as a way to be an effective leader.

  • Keep the end in mind – The whole point of creating a plan is to achieve an end result, not define the only way to accomplish something. When chaos rears its ugly head and trashes your best laid plans, don’t focus on the destruction of the “how”. Celebrate the opportunity to still achieve the “what”. A flexible leader who fosters an environment of creativity in the face of adversity is a reckoning force for any organization.
  • Remember the heart of things – For nearly everything being done, there was a reason for starting it. Most likely it was born out of a principle that was influenced by values. Creating rules to force compliance to values short circuits the ability for people to emotionally connect with what they’re doing. If the principle for doing something is clearly communicated, the need for rules fades away. Chaos is a complete absence of rules, so don’t set yourself up to be blind-sided by reality.
  • Laugh at difficulty – It’s frustrating to spend time, effort and money on things, only to see them be undermined by the unexpected. Sure we want to throw up our hands and scream, but how much will that change anything but your blood pressure? This isn’t a laissez-faire attitude, but choosing to laugh at it all and keep moving forward. Attitudes are very contagious, so choose your attitude carefully!

Where can you inject a little chaos into your leadership?

  • I have worked in several industries where chaos was the norm. Keeping a cool head while all around you Chicken Little is running amuck is a talent that is hard to train or develop – it just takes time and more importantly experience. There isn’t a seminar or training session out there that will give you this experience. Having a plan and every member of the team knowing and understanding that plan is the first step. Take that step and you are 50% of the way there.

  • Absolutely John. It is definitely a skill learned in the field. Understanding some generic guidelines always help keep your head about you when you have the opportunity to develop this skill.

    Thanks for sharing your insight and experience!


  • I’m thinking back over the past year — mercy me. Along with what you wrote, be adaptable — bend but don’t break and own your chaotic path because there is truly beauty along the way.

    Yes, and the laughing. Lots of it.

  • There is something powerful when you choose to laugh instead of cry (or act out). It’s like it almost strengthens you in some way. I’ve been honored to be an invited spectator of your journey over the past few months, Kevin. Excited for your future my friend!


  • William,

    I love that you’re focusing on keeping the end in mind (the vision!) and on the importance of attitude. Your reminder that attitude is contagious is so important as one particular attitude show over even a several day period becomes a pattern…and we all know how hard patterns are to break!

    Enjoyed the post!
    Lisa Petrilli

  • Absolutely Lisa. Having the right attitude is great, but if it’s not consistent it doesn’t carry much weight.

    Thanks so much for your comment!