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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

How to Work for a Human Tornado

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Chances are good that, at some point in your career, you’re going to work for a human tornado. In my speeches and workshops, I often say that leaders control the weather. When I talk with my audiences about that, I’m assuming that it’s a room full of healthy, positive people who can make smart choices about the weather they’re creating as leaders. Unfortunately, though, many of us will at some point work for a leader who creates all kinds of terrible weather. They’re the human tornados.

The experience of working for a human tornado can feel a lot like being on the plains in a summer storm. You know the conditions are ripe for destruction and devastation, you just don’t know exactly where the tornado is going to hit, which way it’s going to turn, what it’s going to sweep up in its path and destroy and what it’s going to leave standing. Waiting for the inevitable but unpredictable forces of a tornado and then dealing with the damage is a very high stress experience.

Working for a human tornado can create a similar but different phenomenon. At least with a real tornado, you can read the atmospheric conditions to get a sense of when you should take cover. With the human tornado, not so much, They can spin out of nowhere and lash out in ways that leave their staff to clean up the mess and living in fear of when the next storm is going to be unleashed.

So, if you find yourself working for a human tornado, what can you do to both minimize the damage and survive the storm? Here are five tips on how to do it:

Put on your own mask first: One of the biggest dangers of working for a human tornado is the immediate as well as lasting damage the experience can do to your physical and mental health. As I discuss in my book, Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative, the stress can leave you in a chronic state of fight or flight. That dramatically degrades your judgment and decision making abilities in the short run and can reduce your life expectancy in the long run. As they say in the pre-flight announcements, in the event of an emergency, put on your own mask first before attempting to assist others. Taking care of yourself is always important but perhaps never more so than when you’re working for a human tornado. Put on your own mask first. Mitigate your natural fight or flight response by activating your rest and digest response. Get up and move every hour. Take regular deep breaths from your belly. Stay connected with other (sane) people. Remember the things that are going right in your life.

Exert Influence when and where you can: The best weather forecasters make solid predictions based on the experience they’ve had identifying patterns in the data available to them. If you’re going to be effective in working for a human tornado you have to do the same thing. If you step back and observe, you’ll start to see patterns in the tornado’s behavior that will allow you to exert influence when and where you can. For instance, based on your knowledge of the tornado’s hot buttons, where are they most likely to strike? Look for and take advantage of opportunities to get ahead of the predictable patterns by sharing information early that will shape the tornado’s perceptions. A pro tip is to pay special attention to the triggers that are likely to make the tornado feel insecure. When you strip everything else away, most destructive leaders are inherently insecure about their place in the world. While it can be exhausting to do so, keep your radar turned on for situations that will trigger the tornado’s insecurity. Then do your best to avoid them or head them off at the pass to help things go more smoothly.

Form alliances: Managing a tornadic boss is not a job to do by yourself. You need to play zone defense, not man-to-man. Form alliances with trusted colleagues to help keep the boss calm and on track. Work with each other to develop shared agendas that move the organization forward. Coordinate with each other on the best ways to deploy the boss. Share information and insights about what’s working and what’s not. Commiserate with each other when things get crazy, but don’t live there. Nothing good comes from perpetual pity parties.

Be clear about your purpose: When you’re working for a human tornado, the pace of the daily crises can be so overwhelming that you can forget why you took the job in the first place. When you have a relatively calm hour or two, write down for yourself what you’re trying to accomplish in the bigger picture, why that matters and for whom it matters. That clarity of purpose can serve you in at least two important ways. First, it can serve as a reference point and guide when you’re trying to decide how to handle any given crisis your tornado boss stirs up. Second, it can serve as a source of motivation to keep going when the going gets tough.

Know when to say when: All of that said, when it comes to working for a human tornado, you have to know when to say when. Being in a constant state of waiting for damage or repairing the damage can get old fast. It’s hard on your mind, body and spirit. Circle some dates on the calendar—six months from now, 1 year from now and 2 years out. When you reach those dates, stop and ask yourself how it’s going and how you’re doing. Are you making progress, treading water or sinking fast? If the answer is treading water or sinking fast, consider if there’s anything else you can do or do differently that could make things better. If you’re coming up dry on those questions, then it’s probably time to move on. Life is short. You’ve done your best to make the best of a bad situation. Let someone else pick up the ball.

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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