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“The Walking Dead” Premiere: Communicating Through Uncertainty

I‘ve been watching The Walking Dead for many years. After the season premiere last night, I was prompted to think about leadership.


More specifically, how leaders talk to the people during times of uncertainty. 


Sheriff Rick and the crew were clearly outgunned and outnumbered, by the terrifying Negan and his gang. Sure, they had a plan to fight — but no way of knowing if they would make it.


In real life, sometimes leaders think — because they’re paid to have or get the answers — that if you don’t know what’s going on, or if you can’t take control of it, then better to just keep quiet.


But having been a child of uncertainty — my dad is an IT consultant, and we moved every year for a decade — I can tell you that *not talking about things* rarely is a good strategy. 


Children are by nature helpless, and so they watch their parents for cues. If they don’t get the needed information, they will make something up in their heads. When something goes wrong, in the absence of other information, they will readily blame themselves: false belief at least offers certainty. 


If too much time goes on and their parents simply say nothing, or offer up platitudes and lies, they mentally “check out” from the family. 


Fortunately my parents were not like that. They told me the knowns and the unknowns. Probably because I simply would not stop asking. 


Every time we learned of an impending move, my mother had the job of telling me. Face-to-face, a quiet room, a chance to ask all my questions. Nothing would be a surprise. And yes, of course I did get mad.


Reminds me of that time, a few years ago, when the government shutdown loomed. I was working at another government agency, which knew how to handle it: They took us into a room and let us let off steam. 


Not that it was pleasant, for anyone. Not that it increased morale — not really. 


But it bonded the team together, and when we came back we were more cohesive than before. We had more trust.


During times of uncertainty, it’s important to set up a psychological safety valve for the group. Part of that is admitting when you don’t know things; part of that is letting people get angry. 


Here’s something else leaders can do. In the television show, there was much airtime devoted to inspiring leadership messages. “We will win,” the leaders declared. “We have survived so much.” “I promise you, this is over.”


On and on they chanted, knowing — as their audience knew — that the words might not be true. 


But they had the steady drumbeat of commitment, and in times of uncertainty, commitment is what people want and need to hear. 


Genuine words. 


Feel for your people, be there for your people, stand up and cheer them on.


That’s what a real leader does when there is “no news to report.”


It works. 


People occupy a job, but they want to serve a single united mission. 


It’s a bonus if they get to work for leaders (and with colleagues) who continually express an interest in how they are feeling. And who speak with them regularly, giving whatever information they have as though sharing a loaf of bread.


These are the acts of servant leaders, and when we see them, they serve to inspire our faith.


Posted by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal on October 23, 2017. Blog content is hereby released into the public domain. All opinions are the author’s own. 

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