Five top tips to improve your leadership through uncertainty

It is a natural human reaction to feel threatened by prolonged uncertainty and, in many cases, the fear that ensues might be specifically triggered by the threat of job loss, loss of income, possible loss of social status or identity – this may manifest differently in individuals but is so widespread in society that it has become a topic that all businesses are having to tackle. 

As business leaders, we need to address these fears, threats and associated anxieties rather than ignoring or accepting them as a feature of difficult times.

Leadership is widely accepted in all businesses large and small as a key requirement for success.  The ability to inspire shared purpose, articulate a vision of the future and create a collective identity around your business’ reason for being are core elements of high-performing teams and organisations. 

Beyond managing vision and purpose — a tough enough skill to crack — business leaders are also expected to put sufficient detail to business plans enabling colleagues to align and make their unique contributions valid.  This requires identifying and bringing to life values that guide decision making and behaviour.

Leadership is not just simply a ticket to the game or an adjunct to management responsibility; leadership contributes to what makes your business different to the rest and is a source of competitive or collaborative advantage. 

Getting leadership right for your business is critical in any circumstance but at times of significant disruption, prolonged uncertainty and wide-scale change, the right kind of leadership is vital for survival and to guide your business to future success.

So too is leadership’s lesser written about cousin – organisation.  We seem to take this topic for granted but the way in which individuals and teams are organised is an equally critical component of how/if a business performs. 

As many of us have experienced over recent times, the working world is fluid and the way in which people, their work effort, skills, behaviour and output is organised needs to be flexible enough to react to significant change and adaptable enough to take advantage of new opportunities.

Here are our five top tips for effective leadership in uncertain times:

Re-state your business purpose:

In most cases, your business purpose is relatively fixed.  You are not likely to routinely question or change the reason your business exists.  If your business purpose has been significantly impacted by recent events then it is worth reviewing that for yourself and adjusting if necessary. Either way, it is important to remind colleagues of your shared purpose, making sure everyone knows why your business exists and why that is important in today’s world.

Acknowledge personal challenges:

 We have all been impacted in different ways over the last few months, we are all unique.  It is important that these challenges are not simply forgotten or dismissed but that as leaders we acknowledge the specific challenges that we have faced and the challenges that others have faced. 

Making time to share your own experience and listen to how others have experienced these challenges fosters trust and helps create a platform from which you can move forward, together.

Consciously gather and share information about the future:

 Of course, moving forward is not easy in times of significant uncertainty.  It is counter-productive to create plans based on guesswork and false assumptions.  However, it helps develop a sense of certainty if you can share relevant information regularly and set out the ‘what ifs’ with some plausible options. 

Scenario planning has replaced traditional business planning in businesses that accept they don’t know the future — they work with what they do know and what they can control to lay out optionality for quick decision making as things become clearer. 

Active information gathering and thoughtful information sharing can help your team understand the likely scenarios and the decisions that might go with them.

 Be optimistic:

 Optimism is not to be confused with blind positivity but is important for yourself and others in galvanising the focused effort required to succeed.  Optimism is about hopefulness and confidence about your business’ future success. 

This is not to say you won’t have doubts – some doubts will be obvious to everyone in your organisation – but on balance, if you are not optimistic about your business’ future then it’s unlikely anyone you’re trying to lead is going to follow.  This also provides a confidence platform from which decisions can be made rather than the paralysis of second guessing based on pessimism.  If the outlook is gloomy then no-one wants to make a decision that turns that into reality.

Care and empower people as individuals:

  It is difficult to get the balance right between demonstrating ‘appropriate interest and responsibility as an employer’ and ‘over-reach into the personal lives of your employees’.  Through times of national and international crisis, it’s fair to say that the line between personal and work-life has been redrawn several times, not least now that our homes have become our places of work in a semi-permanent way. 

It is much easier to empower people and for them to be at their best professionally if you are able to demonstrate compassion and empathy for any difficulties that they may be facing that are unique to their circumstances.

In short, help people who seek your leadership find certainty, reason and sense in what they are experiencing.  If you still have a shared purpose, re-state it.  If your collective values have stood intact, acknowledge them.  If you want people to contribute to the future of your business, tell them.

Matthew Emerson is the founder and managing director of Blackmore Four

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