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Advice: Combat crisis with bigger circle of control

Things in the world — and with your business — might look like they are in peak volatility. But there are ways to rise above the instability.

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  • | 9:00 p.m. January 21, 2021
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VUCA is an acronym for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Warren Bennis first introduced the acronym and concepts in his writings about leadership. The U.S. military found the concept useful for helping to formulate strategies in the post‒Cold War world. VUCA became even more relevant and important after 9/11. I first heard VUCA discussed in 2008, as the only business representative invited to a strategy session at the U.S. Army War College in Gettysburg, Pa.

Our current situation is about as VUCA as it gets. The global COVID-19 pandemic, global economic recession, U.S. social unrest. For many businesses, these add up to unprecedented challenges.

Small businesses are especially vulnerable right now. Even in “normal” times, one in five small businesses fails within its first year. And the pandemic has put U.S. small-business jobs — 30 million of them, according to McKinsey & Co. — disproportionately at risk. Nearly half those vulnerable jobs are clustered in a handful of industries, including hotels, food and beverage, construction, and retail — familiar sectors for the region.

But small business remains the lifeblood of our economy. Before the pandemic, it accounted for nearly half of all private-sector jobs and almost 44% of U.S. GDP. In addition, 15.5 million independent workers sell their products or services directly to interested buyers in our 21st-century digital economy.

The nonprofit sector adds another 5.6% to economic output. The approximately 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S. employed about 12 million people, or 10% of the U.S. workforce, as of last year.

Now consider the regional economy. Small business predominates. We have a large nonprofit sector and thousands of independent workers. Our quality of life attracts entrepreneurs, freelancers and philanthropists. The upshot: Many local businesses, nonprofits and independent operations — probably yours, if you’re reading this — need all the help they can get right now to navigate and survive this crisis.

So how can you respond to VUCA?

Focus on what you can control

Leadership guru Stephen Covey popularized the concept that people operate in concentric circles of concern and influence. Our “circle of concern” includes all the things we care about and that affect us but that we can’t control. Even with vaccines here, COVID-19 will be with us for several more months, perhaps even a year, disrupting the economy and jobs for too many of us, disrupting schools for our children and continuing to disrupt our family and social lives. It’s human nature to spend a lot of time here.

Our “circle of influence,” on the other hand, includes the things we can affect. But the more time we spend on concerns — which we can’t control — the smaller our circle of influence becomes.

I like a model that evolved from Covey’s to include a third interior circle — the “circle of control.” It contains the few but important things we can decide or act on to make a difference. Now think of specific things like your cash on hand, your offerings to your customers and your flexible work policies for employees. The more we choose to operate here — the bigger we make our circles of control and influence — the more we push out and minimize concerns we can’t do much about anyway.

You surely have a swirl of concerns right now. How much of your day (and night) do you spend fretting about them? Try to manage or minimize concerns. Choose to focus, like a laser, on what you can control or influence right now. Here are two critical questions to ask:

  • What is your biggest individual challenge or problem right now affecting you personally?
  • What is the biggest challenge or problem right now for your small business, nonprofit organization or independent operation?

Write down your answers. Be as clear, direct and precise as you can be. Next time, we’ll examine these problems from a fresh angle.

A.G. Lafley, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, worked for decades in and with large public companies. Over the past 15 years, he has turned more of his attention and energy to small businesses and nonprofit organizations. He currently serves on the boards of Omeza, Snapchat, Tulco, Hamilton College and the Sarasota Bay Park Conservancy. A Sarasota resident, Lafley has written best-selling books on innovation and strategy as well as numerous Harvard Business Review articles on leadership and management. His new website,, comprises practical, how-to insights for small businesses, nonprofits and freelancers rooted in his five-plus decades of business experience.


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