Finding the Curl in a Disruptive Wave of Change

We don’t know whether he ever knew it or not, but Warren Bennis was the kind of author that elicited audible reactions from the people that read what he had to say about leadership. He, Peter Drucker, Tom Peters and perhaps a handful of others in the 1980s jump-started the ongoing obsession with leadership that appears from all available indicators to be both very much alive and well.

Case in point: Bennis was by no means the first scholar to draw a distinction between leadership and management. But to my recollection, he was the first to put it in terms that made you stop in your tracks.

Leaders … figure out the right things to do …

Managers make sure those things are done … right.”

With formulating an actionable response to all that is COVID-19 as a backdrop, consider the distinctions Bennis illuminates in conjunction with their inherent interdependence:

Doing the Right Things

Since the beginning of time, leaders that could take complicated things and make them simple found themselves with an audience, especially in times of disruptive change.

The first step forward is to gain insight, in an organizational context, on what just happened. Many of these virtual sessions have been very good, but the one that stands apart from the rest for me is an interview Marshall Goldsmith and Sanyin Siang recently conducted with Sandy Ogg of

I won’t spoil the discussion for you (~20 minutes) but as a preview:

  • There are key roles in any organization that are responsible for driving a disproportionate amount of the value that organization creates
  • When change “happens,” value shifts (i.e., the roles that were driving value pre-COVID-19 may not be on the inside track in the aftermath)
  • The first step leaders need to take in figuring out the right things to do is to pinpoint the value drivers after the change and practice “ambidexterity” (a focus on short-term survival with an eye on long-term prosperity in a potentially much different world)

Doing Things Right

If you are a frontline manager in any size organization, it is difficult to pinpoint the things you need to be doing. I imagine it’s not unlike finding yourself as the guide for a dozen or so others on a raft in the middle of a whitewater rapids run. Quite unexpectedly, the river has gone out of control to a point where it is inducing widespread panic. As your “raft mates” grip their safety harnesses, all eyes are on you. How do you respond? Consider two elements of short-term advice:

  1. Keep your head (mindset).
  2. Adapt your approach (style).


You can’t see what’s going on inside somebody else’s head. You can only draw inference about it based on what you do see. There was a time when the focus of that distinction was on determining whether a manager had Theory X or Theory Y assumptions about others (Douglas McGregor). Today, it centers around the work of Carol Dweck (fixed or growth mindset?).

To instill a growth mindset in others, you must model it yourself. Nobody wanted COVID-19 (massive understatement) but now that we’re in the middle of it, what a tremendous opportunity it could turn out to be! We know based on history that when the waves of change crash:

  • Some people drown. They are immobilized, mindsets fixed. They fail to recognize, adjust or respond
  • Most people swim. They ride out the storm, paddle along, come out the other side and survive in their new reality
  • Some people surf! They greet change as an opportunity to learn, get in the curl of those waves for an exhilarating ride and wind up in a place they never could have dreamed of otherwise

Good managers attack change by treating it as a massive teaching opportunity (for themselves as well as those around them). They are honest, they are transparent and as a first step, they help the people in their raft embrace their circumstances and believe in their collective potential.


When you view change through the lens of leadership, what you see is regression. Confident people that have been performing the tasks associated with their roles at a sustained and acceptable level have the rug ripped out from underneath them. Doing things right as a manager while you are rolling through the rapids translates to adapting your approach to the initial nuances of the disruption. In general terms, that means increased structure, an obsession with facts and relentless communication.


Visibility and direct access are key. If nothing else, establishing recurring team “huddle-ups,” one-on-ones and impromptu opportunities to connect will enhance your ability as a manager to assess where people are, what needs to be done and who needs to do it. The readiness of your team to perform has shifted; you need to shift right along with them.


To the best of your ability, focus your team on what you know and can verify, as opposed to what everybody thinks based on something they just heard. Share data and facilitate ownership of a path forward grounded in the interpretation of that information. Calibrate that path based on future analysis of emerging trends.


Simply stated: Managers can’t communicate enough during disruptive change. Part of that communication is tactical (who needs to do what by when). Along with that, and of at least equal import, is the impact transparent communication has on your credibility. Net-net during disruptive change, you can build trust with others quickly if you didn’t have it—and further enhance it if you did.

If it weren’t for change, people would care a whole lot less about leaders figuring out the right things to do … or managers figuring out how to do those things right. As it is, both of those roles will find themselves on center stage into the foreseeable future.


  1. What roles have become the key drivers of value in your organization since COVID-19?
  2. What do you need to do to position your team in the curl of the COVID-19 wave?