Seven top tips for leading through uncertainty

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Written by Sarah Lewis on 17 September 2013 in Features

Seven tips to help leaders continue to offer leadership even when firm predictions are hard to come by and plans are difficult to make

Many leaders are currently facing the challenge of leading in conditions of great uncertainty in an unpredictable environment. Yet much leadership and change guidance is predicated on the assumption of a relatively stable or foreseeable future - for which plans can be made. 

Here are seven tips to help leaders continue to offer leadership even when firm predictions are hard to come by and plans are difficult to make. 

1. Keep leading

When researching his book 'The Checklist Manifesto' Atul Gawande turned to the airline industry for advice. He discovered that the first instruction on every list is 'keep flying the plane'. Similarly, all may be in turmoil about you, but 'keep offering leadership' has to be the top priority.

2. People first

When thing are running smoothly people issues can seem to be looking after themselves but once uncertainty becomes a key part of the picture everything changes and working with your people must become the main focus of the leadership role. Spending time with people to help them remain motivated, optimistic and performing is now the key aspect of a leader's job.

3. Engender hope and optimism

One of the first causalities when uncertainty looms large is hope. A collapse in motivation and morale can quickly follow. 

Creating a sense of hope and optimism is a key factor in restoring motivation and levels of productivity. Appreciative Inquiry as a change methodology is particularly effective at this. The general principle is to help people to focus on what is good, is still working, is worthwhile, and on what they can influence. Help them be proactive in dealing with, coping with, responding to or interacting with the situation. These things engender hopefulness.

4. Learn to love emergence and discovery

Become expert at sensing small shifts, capturing emerging trends, discovering ways forward by trying things out and seeing what happens. Working this way can initially feel messy, inefficient, and worryingly uncontrollable. But it is also timely, fast, flexible, engaging and involving and can lead to surprising discoveries about the possible. 

5. Call on the collective intelligence of your unit

When things are changing fast and new information is constantly emerging it is impossible for one person, or even a small group of senior people, to keep on top of it all, never mind creating new possibilities for action. Collaborative transformational technologies allow the collective intelligence of the whole unit to work together in an effective way. 

Involve your people in the challenge. Recognise them as intelligent adults and reap the rewards of a huge increase in brain-power on the task. Make finding ways forward and staying pro-active everyone's challenge.

6. Have many review and reflection points 

As situations constantly change so must our plans. Shift from decision-making to sense-making. 

Leadership behaviour in the highly changeable situations is characterised by an ability to move quickly between seemingly contrasting states - such as taking risks and being cautious, using repetition and improvisation, or working with intuition and deliberation. Constant adaptation of plans is adaptive in these situations.

7. Reveal your authenticity and integrity

Research by Avolio and colleagues identified four key features of authentic leadership, one of which is having a strong internal moral compass. Make sure you consult yours often. Another is what they term 'relational transparency', by which they mean allowing people to know you, the real and true you. This may mean sometimes letting people know that you too are only human and sometimes falter or feel vulnerable, as well as sometimes feeling strong and certain. Over time it builds trust and increases group capability as others step up to the mark to help.

Offering leadership during times of uncertainty is no easy task. It requires a different understanding of leadership and different leadership behaviours. Finding ways forward in a rapidly changing environment that will enable the organisation to continue to flourish is too big a demand on any one individual. There is too much information, too many variables. Open Space, World Café and Appreciative Inquiry all offer ways to call on the collective intelligence of the unit while still adding value from the unique position of 'leader'.

About the author

Sarah Lewis M.Sc. C.Psychol is an associated fellow of the British Psychological Society and a principal member of the Association of Business Psychologists.


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