Leading from Crisis or Reserve

Photo credit: David Porter



During a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, the raw beauty of the place struck me, but the most profound impression was the amount of reserve built into the area. The reserve stood out in the roadways, the Albuquerque airport, and everywhere we traveled in the state. On a trip northwest of Santa Fe to the Bandelier National Monument, there were no more than a dozen cars over a 15-mile span on a five-lane highway. The men’s bathrooms at the ABQ airport had 14 urinals, eight stalls, and 12 sinks and there was nobody else there. I’m told the women’s restroom was similarly outfitted in a rare and shining example of potty parity. The commercial zoning requirements limit building heights. Housing developments, mostly adobe style, blend into the surrounding high desert as suggestions rather than egomaniacal excess typical in my home state of Texas.

The place lets me breathe and relax like nowhere else I’ve been, and it served as a reminder that taking time to give ourselves the gift of a reserve is a powerful way to free up our minds. And that freedom provides us space to think, to form higher quality questions, to do more rewarding work, and to carve out more discretionary time in our day.

I now understand why artists and authors retreat to that state to change their own. The place feels open; it feels abundant, there is a reserve. The emotional state of feeling like we have more than enough increases our abundance mindset and crowds out our scarcity one.

Time is the resource we are all granted the same amount of each day. To the extent we can free our minds from scarcity and bring closer to 100% of ourselves to the tasks at hand, we become more effective contributors, leaders, and people.

Crises that require us to change our business model, redesign client service, increase profit margins, or grow the top line, are useful catalysts for action and change. But living in a state of crisis leads to high stress, poor communication, ineffective leadership behavior, frustration, and burnout. A crisis provides a strong why to get us started, but shifting to an abundance mindset creates conditions where our teams and we can thrive and deliver.

Creating Reserve

Some suggestions for creating more abundance and reserve in our teams:

1. Provide resources and remove obstacles. As leaders, it is our responsibility to remove the barriers in our people’s way. If they feel that we have their backs when we give them the tools, technology, people, and space to do great work, the chances of a successful outcome increase. The feeling that help is available creates a reserve.

2. Establish two-way communication. It’s often not possible to change tight deadlines. What we can do is create a channel of two-way communication to highlight changing conditions, provide additional support in the form of ideas and perspective, and make people feel like they are being heard and valued. The feeling that leadership and the team are in it together increases the abundance mindset.

3. Stop doing things. There is a school of thought that a company throws many ideas and projects against the wall and hopes that one or two stick. There is a school of thought that what gets focused on and measured gets done. I favor the second. Resources are finite, and it’s the leader’s responsibility to make sure the team is working on the right things. Before deciding to add another project, make sure that the existing ones are still worth doing and that the team can take on the next one. Doing anything else creates resource scarcity, increases the pressure on employees to do more with less, and limits the effective implementation of all the projects in the pipeline. Stopping things creates reserve.

4. Create a process improvement process. It should be everyone’s job to continuously improve processes in their own area. One of the most effective ways to create an additional reserve, in the form of capacity, is to simplify operations. Whether that takes the form of employee suggestions, formal process improvement projects, or full-time teams is up to you. But setting expectations for continuous improvement, providing training in process mapping, and rewarding people their efforts increases the company’s capacity to deliver more efficiently and effectively without adding resources. If we can move from a 5-step process to a 3-step process, we create reserve. If we can simplify from three handoffs to one handoff in our workflow, we create a reserve. If we can answer a customer question in one contact rather than two, we build reserve.

5. Recognize diverse work styles. Set up quiet rooms or spaces in your office (or home office) and encourage employees (and yourself) to spend 30 minutes a day to meditate, eat a snack, listen to music, read a book, do jumping jacks, or chat with others about anything except politics and religion. Any relief from the stress of the next deadline allows space for recharging.

Takeaway: Living in crisis is not the path to breakthrough thoughts, action, or performance. Whatever life or work role you find yourself in, creating opportunities to work with an abundance mindset rather than a scarcity mindset will help deliver better results. Importantly, your increased effectiveness partnered with lower stress creates a virtuous cycle. Having reserve frees your mind to bring your best self to your work and life.