Leadership through Uncertainty

By Danielle Rocheleau

We have been navigating the waters of change for quite some time. Whether it be adjustments to funding models, demographic shifts, workplace culture expectations, and now the threat to international public health, organizational change is inevitable. In some cases, change causes small ripples, and in other cases it calls for whole societal shifts in behaviour.

Moving effectively through the current COVID-19 crisis, although unique, is similar to moving through any substantial change—it needs leadership. Leadership with compassion and understanding. With a sense of stability and reassurance. Now more than ever, we need direction.

We know that leadership through change is not easy. Hard decisions need to be made, and countless hours worked. Sleepless nights often ensue. There is no easy answer or quick fix for any of it.

What is the best way to think about leadership during these uncertain times?

Five Ways to Weather the Storm

The following are approaches that, when implemented together, can help organizations and teams through the tough stuff.

1. Communicate, communicate, communicate (then do it some more)

Uncertainty often inspires anxiety. It can be found in our teams, with those we serve, and the communities in which we live. Silence, whether intended to or not, will often be interpreted as bad news. To alleviate this, it is important to communicate (and reinforce) a clear perspective on what is happening and what it means for the organization, even when you don’t have any new answers. Communicating new developments, what isn’t changing, and even when there haven’t been further developments, can relieve anxiety. Through effective communications those around you will be reassured that you are indeed thinking about the issue at hand and actively addressing what you can control.

2. Plan for the short- and long-term

In times of uncertainty, it’s essential that planning not be forgotten. It is sometimes hard to know where to begin when things change, especially when it is unexpected, such as the current circumstances of an international pandemic. There are no guidebooks for some scenarios, and you can only work with what you know today and the data you happen to have. Balancing short-term decisions with long-term impacts on organizational goals, will offer direction and help navigate through the challenge. When our landscape shifts, using data to think through scenarios will encourage objective thinking and lessen “from the gut” decision making. Turbulent times present opportunities, and they can be pursued while actively managing risk.

3. Stay rooted in values

An organization’s mission, workplace culture and values are put to the test in challenging times. Lead by example, reinforcing the culture and values that will guide the organization through difficult periods. Remaining consistent with the values will reassure and inspire people to overcome challenging situations together and drive productive team behaviours and dynamics. Along with effective planning, an organization’s values are the best tool for navigating short-term challenges.

4. Provide guidance and focus

Creating some order through uncertainty is a challenge on its own.When crisis or bigger changes are presented, it’s important to cut through the clutter of conflicting data and opinions, identifying the areas that need attention and allocating resources accordingly. By quickly developing and communicating a perspective on the best path forward, there comes a welcome sense of direction to an organization that might otherwise be paralyzed by indecision. Offering meaningful support while engaging those around you will create a sense of collaboration and purpose, ultimately driving focus to the task at hand.

5. Know when to adjust

When navigating uncertain times, things can change quickly. New information presents itself and circumstances can shift daily. Look at the plans in place and know when to refocus or pivot. Decision making can be tricky. Being ready to identify when to stay on course or when to adjust to something new will enable an organization to remain flexible and responsive, and ultimately enable them to successfully overcome the challenge at hand.

“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” ~John Maxwell