“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”

— Aristotle Onassis

“Two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.”

— Carl von Clausewitz

“However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

— Stanley Kubrick

“In the midst of darkness, light persists.”

— Mahatma Gandhi

“Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself.”

— Desiderius Erasmus

“The nearer the dawn the darker the night.”

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“It is said that the darkest hour of the night comes just before the dawn.”

— Thomas Fuller, 1650

We are surely in a very dark period of human history. Darker than the Black Death of 1346 to 1353 that killed 30% to 60% of the European population? Probably not. At least we hope not.

The big question at this point is where we are on the trajectory of our current darkness. Recent events do not seem to point to a bottom that is clear. So maybe the worst is yet to come? Or perhaps even past?

There are many versions of the aphorism that “Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do”. Much truth here but not much helpful. We are not generally very good at predicting or detecting a bottom or “worst” point in events. The truly darkest time in most situations is visible only in hindsight.

For those who must lead an organization through this time of darkness, seeing ahead to the dawn is neither possible nor practical. Leaders have no choice but to lead through the darkness, however long and nasty it be turn out to be.

Managing effectively in darkness

Darkness in this context is not really the absence of light but a combination of very difficult times with little or no predictability. We simply can’t see far enough ahead to push forward confidently. Nor can we see the likely point of “darkest” or “worst”.

Leaders have the special burden of providing strong direction even in such times as these. They are in effect the “light”, or such light as may be available.

Looking a little more deeply at this observation, we might be able to conclude that whatever light exists in a darkness must come from within us, not from outside.

We are the light before the dawn, whenever it may decide to appear. Dawn actually showing up for work is not a requirement.

Generators of today’s darkness

Real leadership is light

Life is full of dark, tough times. Unless you get very lucky, you will build a repertoire of handling such periods in various ways. You may not do a very good job with most or even many dark situations but leaders get tested frequently. Goes with the territory.

We think of leaders as, well, leading. Giving clear and strong direction. Cutting through the daily fuzz and commotion. But we don’t very often see leaders as light-givers. They are often the only ones capable of being light-givers.

In times like this, being a true source of light for your people is a very tough challenge. Light can give them hope and help them persevere through their own personal struggles in the dark.

What is leadership “light” in practice?

Being able to provide “light” as a leader seems very inspirational and positive. Until you actually try to do this – effectively. Light is not cheerleading or flag-carrying. It is something much deeper and often very hard to generate.

Light is probably not predictions or weakly-founded expectations. It has to be realistic and believable. Light is hopeful and positive. Motivational.

Light in a leadership context may well be a combination of vision and courage, strongly communicated and persisted.

A leader may have no better idea of where things are headed or when the “worst” is truly passed but the leader can provide hope and direction.

Think about today. Few of us have ever encountered anything close to the mass of negatives and never-ending bad news. Unrelenting. The turning point, or even just a breather, is nowhere in sight for most.

Hope is important but just how do you create credible “hope”? Whatever hope may be in practice.

Here is where I see today’s leadership light:

“Light” is a clear, agile, adaptable plan

Darkness generates scary uncertainty. Fears build upon fears. Hopelessness can take hold invisibly. The answer is certainty, clarity, and practicality. Only an effective leader can provide this.

Leaders in such times must provide and then execute credible plans for moving forward despite the darkness.

Since a leader may not be able to see ahead any more reliably than others, the plan must be highly agile flexible enough to change to meet new situations quickly – and adaptable enough to address a wide range of actual situations.

The plan here is more of a process than a traditional plan. It is likely to develop continuously as events, nasty or otherwise, unfold. This is, to a large extent, inherent in the concept of agile methodology.

This does not mean doing what you have always done, along with such variable accommodations as the latest COVID regulations may require. Business as usual (BAU) is a plan of course but it is rarely either agile or adaptable.

We know that the business environment will continue to change

The past year or so has seen huge changes, often of the black swan persuasion, that have made the business environment largely unpredictable. Nobody with any certainty knows what the future will bring. You can’t plan as in past for this kind of a world.

The best that you can do is plan flexibly using a process to adapt current actions to whatever may be going on at the moment.

This is something very new for most businesses that grew up and prospered in stable, predictable times. Such times are gone, perhaps forever.

Oh yes, very important: Be sure to monitor what’s happening daily so as to feed the important information routinely – real time – into the planning process.

Leadership scholar and writer Warren Bennis has said: “A leader doesn’t just get the message across; he is the message”.

Bottom line:

Darkness – in the sense of largely-missing clarity and certainty – is upon us, with no dawn in sight. Business leadership must provide the “light” meanwhile. The “light” here is clear, agile, adaptable plans that develop continuously as a process, and that are not a management product. Leadership-as-light for organizations is far from a new concept. What is new is the critical role of agile management in these times.

Melissa Henley writing in reworked.co looks at this critical leadership role slightly differently: “Leadership During a Crisis Means More Than Keeping the Lights On”:

“For your team, how do you maintain confidence in a time of ambiguity? When nothing is certain, how do you keep them certain in your leadership and direction? When the crisis has no defined end point, and seems like it might drag on forever, how do you keep employees focused and engaged? Transparent leadership is one answer. And that requires three things: consistent communication, empathy and clear messaging.”

“Communicate Clearly, Consistently and Transparently. People fear what they don’t know, and the COVID-19 crisis seems like a never-ending journey into the unknown. What’s going to happen? Is my job safe? When we return to the office, will I be safe? While you can’t, and shouldn’t, predict the future, you can communicate regularly to assuage employees’ fears.”

“Be honest and transparent. If people fear what they don’t know, how do you address a situation where you don’t know what the outcome will be? Be honest about what you do know and what it means for people. But this doesn’t mean you should stick to cold directives. When people are frightened, they need reassurance. As much as you can, provide your employees with a vision of the future that they can work toward.”

Tim Durkin, a healthcare leadership expert, states the leadership-as-light perspective very concisely in “Leader or Manager? What’s Right and When?”:

“The choices are these: heat light.
Now, fill in the blanks:
Leaders provide _________. Managers provide __________.
The answers:
Leaders provide light. Managers provide heat.

Chris Stathakis has another short-but-on-target view”:” Leaders Light a Path: They Know The Way, Go The Way & Show The Way”:

A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” — John C. Maxwell

“This quote really resonates with me. You just can’t guide people if you yourself don’t know where you are going. You may not always be able to cut a clear path to where you are headed but you at least have to have some idea of the destination. In fact, I would contend that a huge chunk of a leader’s energy, time and other resources should be spent mapping that destination.”

All too often leaders, even the best of us, get bogged down on details rather than spend the time we need creating a vision for our organizations and planning the path to get everyone there [emphasis added]. This can happen for any number of reasons and it can happen to even the most adept and laser-focused among us.”

One fairly popular view of what the future has in store for us is the Strauss-Howe Fourth Turning theory that views the past few hundred years as a series of 80 to 100-year cycles of four “turnings” each. Wikipedia gives a good overview:

“The Strauss–Howe generational theory, also known as the Fourth Turning theory or simply the Fourth Turning, describes a theorized recurring generation cycle in American history and global history. It was devised by William Strauss and Neil Howe. According to the theory, historical events are associated with recurring generational personas (archetypes). Each generational persona unleashes a new era (called a turning) lasting around 20–25 years, in which a new social, political, and economic climate (mood) exists. They are part of a larger cyclical “saeculum” (a long human life, which usually spans between 80 and 100 years, although some saecula have lasted longer). The theory states that a crisis recurs in American history after every saeculum, which is followed by a recovery (high). During this recovery, institutions and communitarian values are strong. Ultimately, succeeding generational archetypes attack and weaken institutions in the name of autonomy and individualism, which eventually creates a tumultuous political environment that ripens conditions for another crisis.”

“Strauss and Howe laid the groundwork for their theory in their 1991 book Generations, which discusses the history of the United States as a series of generational biographies going back to 1584. In their 1997 book The Fourth Turning, the authors expanded the theory to focus on a fourfold cycle of generational types and recurring mood eras to describe the history of the United States, including the Thirteen Colonies and their British antecedents. However, the authors have also examined generational trends elsewhere in the world and described similar cycles in several developed countries.”

“Academic response to the theory has been mixed—some applauding Strauss and Howe for their “bold and imaginative thesis” and others criticizing the theory as being overly-deterministic, unfalsifiable, and unsupported by rigorous evidence, “about as scientific as astrology or a Nostradamus text.” Strauss–Howe generational theory has also been described by some historians and journalists as a “pseudoscience”, “kooky”, and “an elaborate historical horoscope that will never withstand scholarly scrutiny.” Academic criticism has focused on the lack of rigorous empirical evidence for their claims, and the authors’ view that generational groupings are more powerful than other social groupings such as economic class, race, sex, religion, and political parties.”