How well have you adapted to adapting?

During my days as a news reporter, I gradually realized that one of the skills I needed most, and most often, was the ability to mentally shift gears. I needed to be able to let go of my plans and adopt new ones, sometimes after a considerable investment of time and energy.

Journalism is after all supposed to be “reality based programming”. I or my bosses might have had what we thought was a great story idea, but if upon further investigation that concept didn’t match what was actually occurring out in the world, the intended story had to be revised or abandoned. Or, breaking events might suddenly force me to rearrange priorities and go off in an entirely unanticipated direction. There were times when I might have to make such shifts several times in a day, before settling on the story I would eventually put on the air (often with a much shorter deadline than I had when the day began).

That sort of continual improvisation can be quite stressful, especially when you’re facing a deadline that is not changing. When I had interns tagging along, usually bright and rather starry-eyed undergraduates, I often made an analogy that surprised them. I told them that if they wanted to understand one of the crucial skills of this job (and find out whether they had the disposition to cut it), go wait tables. A waiter is under very similar pressures. You never know how many people are going to walk through the door or when. But everyone expects to be waited on promptly. When the rush hits, you just deal with it and do the best you can.

Both the news business and waiting tables rank high among stressful occupations. Such jobs involve a lot of variability, yet you have little ability to control those demands, and you have a high level of responsibility for meeting them. Professions such as nursing have a similar stress profile and the burnout rate in such jobs can be quite high.

Such jobs can also be exhilarating. Reporters tend to have above average rates of adult attention deficit disorder. We chose the profession partly because of the high levels of stimulation. Also, unlike most waiter jobs or even nursing positions, journalism provides a creative outlet. (Some might argue that it’s a little too creative.) So rather than burning out, there’s a tendency to embrace and even thrive on the constant change.

By now, you may be reading this and thinking, “That sounds a lot like my job,” which is my point. More and more jobs now fit this same profile: lots of variability, little control and high levels of personal responsibility. It’s a recipe for burnout unless it also includes some creative component. To thrive in such an environment, we need to see those challenges as an opportunity to be innovative (and be allowed to). With that added piece, we can make the shift from just feeling beat up to feeling like we’re successfully facing new challenges, and using our wits to not just survive but prevail.

Converting burnout into exhilaration requires that sort of personal mental shift. It also requires a degree of independence and flexibility that many organizations refuse to grant. Despite the strict deadlines, a reporter usually has considerable latitude out in the field. One of the surest ways to raise the level of stress is to have some micromanager take that latitude away. I suspect that the same thing happens in your work.

Innovative leadership is about being someone who has made this mental shift. It also means giving others the latitude and encouragement they need to do the same. The payoff is an organizational shift away from resistance to change and the tendency to just hunker down, to a much more engaged sense of, “I’m ready world, give me your best shot.” Another payoff may be a vast improvement in everyone’s mental health.