Leading through uncertainty


We have entered uncharted territory. And the situation is shifting constantly. There has perhaps never been a greater need to invest in our wellbeing and create a sense of connection and togetherness. As a leader, we may experience huge pressure around needing to show others the way – even when we don’t understand what is happening ourselves.

What happens to us when things are uncertain?

When we don’t have clarity, we tend to compensate by creating our own narratives. We start to think about possibility instead of probability. We may even start to catastrophise and get lost in our own thoughts without anything to anchor us back to the present. We make decisions that can take us down the wrong path because they are not based in fact.

Alternatively, we may lose our ability to make any decisions at all! Sometimes, when we feel a lack of control, we can give up trying to control anything – even those things that we can influence. At times like these, we feel like a passenger in our own lives, just waiting for things to happen.

As Robert L Leahy explains: ‘If you worry, you are likely to equate uncertainty with a bad outcome. . . But uncertainty is not necessarily a bad outcome. It’s a possible outcome—along with neutral, good, and excellent outcomes.’[i]

Create a sense of ‘us’

As leaders, there is a valuable role we can play in terms of creating a sense of ‘team’ and connection. To prevent yourself from being a bottleneck, consider how you might create further autonomy and a sense of shared leadership. Are there tasks that provide the opportunity for people to work together with a shared purpose? Could you ask individuals to take the lead on projects that are linked to their natural strengths and skillsets?

What do we need in order to feel ‘ok’?

As humans we are wired for connection. It is vital for our wellbeing. Given the current context, where our opportunities for social connection are being reduced, we need to think differently about how to stay in touch – both with ourselves and each other.

As a leader, one of the most powerful things you can do is to ask people what they need. It is arrogant and misguided to presume – often based on a lazy assumption that everyone is motivated or concerned by the same things. They are not. Now really is the time to work harder to understand the needs of those around you.

What role can I play as a leader?

Perhaps not the one you expect to play. It is not a requirement of a leader to have all the answers, all the time. In fact, it can be extremely powerful and strengthen human connection when you admit to not knowing. There is great kindness in being as clear and honest with people as you can. Ask your teams what they think. You may be surprised with the ability of people to see the things that you have missed. By involving people, you are helping them to feel valuable and able to contribute. This will do wonders for both engagement and performance.

Never underestimate the ability of people to resolve their own issues given the right environment and level of encouragement. To create more productive, creative and effective environments, progressive leaders are increasingly understanding their role as that of a coach.

The current context gives us a huge opportunity to consider alternative – and potentially even better – ways of working. You now have the chance to get really close to understanding what truly matters to your people, what they need in order to feel motivated and getting to the heart of what really does connect you as a team. Now how often do we get that opportunity? Let’s not waste it.

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[i] Robert L Leahy PhD, Living With Uncertainty, Psychology Today, March 2017: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anxiety-files/201703/living-uncertainty