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  • Debra Cadman

Leading through uncertainty - what works?


When we are making our way through something uncertain, where we are encountering challenges previously unmet, is it best to adopt a reassuringly strong line or should we share our concerns and show our vulnerability? In line with our passion for making work human, is there a balance to be struck?

Right now, at the time of writing (September 2020) we anticipated a return to some sort of normality, albeit a different one. We talked in terms of coming through the pandemic and emerging the other side, some of us having fared a little worse than others, but emerging nonetheless. However it seems that we might be headed for phase 2 in terms of another lockdown with potentially new problems ahead. How do we manage this? How do we lead our teams of people through something that actually isn’t very clear and of which we have little knowledge?

Earlier this year Harvard Business Review ran a round table on this very subject and five great leaders communicated together online to explore leadership during the 2020 pandemic. It was fascinating to read their interest in the human aspect of leadership. It was the sort of round table that I would have been loved to have been sitting at as so much of their discussion struck a chord.

Kevin Sneader, the global managing partner of McKinsey and Company commented: “Leaders should choose candour over charisma. There’s some really tough stuff to this. I want to be an optimist, but there are things we don’t know and things that may or may not happen. So the phrase in my head is “bounded optimism.” This is also a chance to bring purpose to the chaos.”

Chuck Robbins, the CEO of Cisco Systems: “People want to see leaders being human. I’ve reiterated to our team: This is a time for leadership, not management. Be calm, have realistic optimism, and show up and be visible.”

Tony Burch, fashion designer and retail magnate: “You need to keep your strategy intact but be flexible and agile. It’s also important for leaders to show vulnerability along with optimism, and to acknowledge that this situation is hard. The uncertainty really throws people off, but it helps if they see a focused management team that communicates frequently. People want authentic dialogue and transparency.”

Nancy McKinstry, CEO of Walters Kluwer: “The world is changing every single day, and we need to keep asking: How can we help our customers? How can we help our communities? We need to clear away bureaucracy, address things very quickly, and be operationally agile.”

I think the solution is to accept that there is no perfect way to lead at any time, much less right now. However we should go forward using the style that suits us and our environment, possibly a tried and tested method of leadership, but with the added flexibility that will allow us to be honest. Leading from the top is a responsibility and, whilst no one appreciates flakiness, it is not a sign of weakness to say “Do you know, I’m not certain but at this moment this seems to be absolutely the right route for us, as a team, as a business. Let’s pursue it this way but be open to change if we need to”.

Margaret Heffernan, in her book Willful Blindness, says that confidence and uncertainty are not opposites: “True leaders may be confident that the job will get done even while remaining uncertain about how it will get done.”

Managers who lead in this way were seen by their employees as more likely to allow independent judgement and freedom of action which allays their own uncertainty – it becomes acceptable to not have all the answers.

If leaders make it clear that they see certainty as foolhardy, it is easier for their teams to ask questions based their own uncertainty. Questions provide a good deal of information for managers and if they seek out information to answer the questions with their teams, it is highly likely that all parties will identify innovative ways to work things through, collaboratively.

A common-sense approach that shows leadership qualities – strength, guidance, consideration and intelligence is our best bet. Overlay this with honesty, openness and a little vulnerability and you have a leader that is making work human. Being fallible is human – as is not being able to predict the future!

Great leadership steers and aims to provide security, solutions and success - but when none of those things are guaranteed, it’s probably best to temper your leadership with a little vulnerability and as much honesty as you can.

“The culture of organizations, and their people, and how leaders show up during this moment—all of that will define who’s going to be successful in the future. Employees and society want to see who you are as a company. What do you stand for? The answers will have lasting impact as we move beyond this.” [Chuck Robbins]

References:

Harvard Business Review [July-August 2020]

Margaret Heffernan – Willful Blindness (Why we ignore the obvious at our peril) – Simon & Schuster 2011

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