A Leadership Formula for Unsettling Times


By Wayne Rivers, Family Business Institute

A client recently shared this fascinating equation. It is attributed to Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, and it's a very helpful framework for how to think in today’s suddenly unsettled environment. In any period of disruption, leaders must make incredibly quick adjustments on the fly. They must change how they think, change how they lead, and find ways to do business differently in challenging times.

Most people blame events for their lack of progress or success: the macroeconomy, the weather, co-workers, a spouse, or an unanticipated disruption like the one we are experiencing now. It’s human nature to try and find one or more excuses for why our carefully crafted plans didn’t achieve fruition. Leaders don’t have that luxury; they realize that events are outside of their control. Instead, leaders focus on their responses. 

Upon receiving a stimulus, the human brain registers the input, and then supplies us with an emotional response (a feeling) – despite our mighty efforts to assert our objectivity and logic. Following the stimulus and emotional response, we then have a “feeling about our feeling.” We may judge the feeling to be one we shouldn't have, one about which we feel guilty, or one about which we feel angry. All those feelings about our feelings take place within a span of milliseconds. That’s the point in time where Stephen Covey reminds us that, to be our best selves, we must “exercise integrity in the moment of choice.” That's what the formula Event (E) +Response (R) =Outcome (O) is all about. 

As much as we would like to, we cannot control the events around us. We must choose our responses to events to shape them toward our desired outcomes. In 2010 at the height of the Great Recession, I was talking to a client and, frankly, bellyaching about the fact that our business had been cut roughly in half. He became quite stern with me! He said, "Wayne, you are the leader. It's your job no matter what the economic circumstances to lead your company to success and profitability.” 

What a wakeup call! My reflexive response to a dire business challenge was to wallow in EVENT of the Great Recession. A much more useful RESPONSE, and one that you better believe I quickly adopted, was to determine things that we might do to change our trajectory, what we could do to stimulate demand in the marketplace. We came up with dozens of ideas. None, all by itself, was earth-shattering. However, the cumulative weight of our planning and efforts pointed the way back to health and profitability. It was, ultimately, a matter of choice.

Current events are utterly out of our control (upon analysis, what things are within our control?). All we can do as leaders is to choose on which part of the equation we will focus. E+R=O.