Leading Back To Work = Getting A Grip

In the military, grip is often viewed as a key component of a leader’s performance and potential. Rarely defined, nonetheless it is a quality that is obvious when you see you it and equally obvious when it’s absent or lacking.


Right now (July 2020) lots of businesses and organizations are returning to work and figuring out how to do that safely and effectively. As in any crisis leadership more than ever becomes a critical attribute and a measure of your leader’s effectiveness is going to be their ability to grip the situation.


Grip. The word means to take and hold firm. For leaders, grip begins firstly with self-control specifically the ability to manage your inner-state and the emotions and thoughts that a situation triggers. This might well be an acute reaction to a critical incident, coming under enemy fire for a combat leader, for example or witnessing the extent of the damage, for an emergency first responder. Good leaders have learnt to control their emotional response –  they are able to remain calm and project confidence, which may not be at all what they are feeling, but it is what they are going to communicate. Learning to do this requires an ability to detach yourself from your emotional instincts. Army officers are taught to take a ‘condor’ moment, named after the condor vulture, a bird with an 8ft wing span and acute visual acuity.[1] These birds circle at great altitude in order to scan a vast area for potential food. The other notable characteristic of these birds is that they very rarely flap their wings, another emblem for calm control. The metaphor encourages leaders to get above events, to detach and ultimately to think.


As a leader the essence of your job is to exercise your judgement in order to make decisions. The ability to grip yourself first and foremost is the precondition to leading effectively under pressure. The science of performance describes this condition as a ‘coherent state’, which is a measure of balance within the two branches of your central nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. Achieving coherence even under pressure and acute stress is a trainable skill that begins with learning to breathe. The poet T S Eliot described it as ‘the still point of the turning world.  Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is..’[2]


Grip the team. A team can’t perform without direction and clarity – in general it needs to know what, why, what not and when. Uncertainty in contrast creates confusion and ambiguity. These are ripe conditions for anxiety to set in and flourish. In the highly uncertain circumstances that many organisations, teams, individuals and even entire countries find themselves in at the moment, counter-intuitively, the certainty that leaders need to communicate, is that there isn’t any certainty but as a team and an organization we have the talent and experience to figure it out. Clarity and direction are fundamental requirements of good leadership. Those leaders that have grip are going to do a great job of picking up their teams and giving them a sense of direction and purpose. Those that lack grip are leaving the ship without a rudder or a course to steer.


A friend who is a senior NHS manager times her arrival at work to overlap the morning shift change in A&E and the route to her office is deliberately designed to allow her to talk to as many people as possible. Grip is also about asking questions and listening to the team, a function that becomes more important with seniority, which almost invariably distances you from the coal face. By contrast my friend’s predecessor had always used a side door to get straight to his office and to bypass and avoid as many people as possible. Maybe he was a good manager but he sure as hell was a lousy leader.


Grip the task. Ultimately teams, organisations and leaders are measured on their results. Good teams and good leaders tend to be consistently successful. Gripping the task begins with really understanding its context – what is the problem? The more senior you are the more critical this understanding is, too often we default to the solution or some activity. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, if you have an hour to cut down a tree, you better spend the first forty-five minutes sharpening the axe. Slowing down in order to speed up. A question I frequently pose to teams is, do you understand the problem? Do you understand the task – and do you understand that those two things are different? A leader who is flapping, who has failed to first grip themselves will be likely to generate activity and get busy in the task but if that task is not rooted in a fundamental understanding of the problem you run the risk of simply being a busy fool.


Getting back to work will pose great challenges to most teams and organizations the best leaders are thinking now about ‘where the dance is’ and what that is going to demand of them.


Hold tight, hold light, but don’t ever let go.



[1] Probably the phrase actually relates to a 1970’s tobacco commercial – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yAcmDQdcHA

[2] T S Eliot, Four Quartets (Burnt Norton) 1935

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