April 11, 2023

Leadership in uncertain times

By Ulla Veronica Willner, PCC MSc

“Human spirit is the ability to face the uncertainty of the future with curiosity and optimism.”

— Bernard Beckett

What does it feel and look like to lead in uncertain times? 

Many of the leaders I am coaching are currently sharing that they feel overwhelmed, stressed, and powerless, whether due to reorganizations, hiring freezes, looming layoffs, or all of these. The pandemic, war, and energy crisis, together with general political and financial instability, are challenging and changing what it means to lead.

Leading through uncertainty requires transparently accepting and setting boundaries around what you can and cannot control. It also requires creatively identifying and bringing attention to opportunities and progress of different kinds and in different ways that you can then influence. As a leader, your behaviors and impact will always carry more weight, even when you do not have the answers.

So, how do you recognize agency and identify growth opportunities? What does it require to show up with resilience and optimism amidst doom and gloom?

Leadership without answers: The circles of concern, influence, and control

Initially popularised by Stephen Covey in his book 7 Habits for Highly Successful People, this adaptable concept explores three spheres, taking the format of concentric circles. So how can this be applied to leadership under uncertainty? By helping you determine your agency, focus, and energy.

The circle of concern

In the wider circle of concern, you find matters that concern and impact you and your team, but you effectively lack control over these matters. Everything from pandemics, political and financial turbulence, financial decisions, organizational restructurings, limited budgets, or whatever strategy the upcoming CEO will pursue can be included here.

What must you do here? Apart from acknowledging what is happening, not much. But you may be able to establish and grow credibility and trust by accepting that boundary.

Acknowledge, listen, and validate

As argued by Amy Gallo in the HBR article How To Keep Your Team Focused and Productive During Uncertain Times, if your employees seem concerned about the future of the country, the organization, or their jobs, it is unwise to pretend or attempt to carry on with business as usual.

From my personal experience of being subject to reorganizations and layoffs, feeling heard, validated, and treated with honest dignity in the process has mattered more than positive messages difficult to trust.

While it is important to directly address the uncertainty and acknowledge how people are feeling, as a leader you must avoid spending too much time and energy in this space. But this might be easier said than done for any caring human.

Move from empathy to compassion

Empathy is a crucial leadership attribute, especially during times of uncertainty and change. You will want to listen, connect, and show that you care. But too much empathy can cloud your leadership judgement and decision-making as well as exhaust you. Compassion is a more actionable and constructive alternative. But it comes with crucial acknowledgments and subsequent boundaries regarding what is outside of your control and responsibility. Cruel as it may sound, this ultimately includes the emotions, behaviours, and reactions of others.

“Overcoming an empathetic hijack is a critical skill for any leader. In mastering this skill, you must remember that shifting away from empathy does not make you less human or less kind. Rather, it makes you better able to support people during difficult times. ”

– Hougaard, Carter and Afton, HBR, 2021

You can read more about steps to take to move from empathy toward compassion here.

In summary, acknowledging what people are experiencing is crucial to remain credible and trustworthy during uncertainty. But to identify and openly clarify where you effectively can support requires taking a step back and exploring what connecting with empathy and leading with compassion might look like. It will include dropping the weight of everybody else’s emotions from your shoulders, zooming in on where you can support meaningfully, and identifying what you can grow. 

What agency and tools do you as a leader have to provide direction and boost motivation, when answers are sparse, resources few, and emotions high? 

The circle of influence

When leading through uncertainty, this is the sphere where you must focus your energy and actions because this is where, with the right mindset, growth can happen. Discovering what lies within your sphere of influence requires that you balance the realism of what you have acknowledged you cannot control with optimism, creativity, and pragmatism. It includes adding significance to seemingly smaller things, provided they can grow!

Identify opportunities and progress

In each situation, what you can influence or grow will vary. It may look something like this.

  • Show up modeling calm, resilience, integrity, curiosity, and optimism, or however you would want your team to respond to the situation.
  • Ask how you can support and listen to their input.
  • Focus on creating clarity, including around priorities.
  • Share what you can share with transparency. Frequently!
  • Be equally transparent around the unknowns.
  • Share your vision and intentions, such as what criteria you will base future decisions on.
  • Encourage, guide, and grow collective and individual learning.
  • Zoom in on relationships, synergies, and collaboration. Innovate!
  • Acknowledge strengths, talent, and leadership on the team.
  • Bring attention to wins and progress, regardless of how small.
  • Build team agility and future readiness.

Support employee needs and promote learning and development

A client shared that one of her main priorities during a significant reorganization, over which she had limited control and insight, eventually became supporting her team in coming out of the process as whole as possible, without burnouts or major self-doubts. She influenced this by communicating transparently and frequently, setting boundaries, prioritizing learning, and scheduling regular one-to-ones for coaching and well-being. To her, leadership was a call greater than her formal role within that organization. She positively influenced the experience of the individuals on her team throughout the process, with those staying becoming better prepared to tackle future challenges and those leaving at least feeling they were supported and perhaps even grew wiser through it.

As your own future might be uncertain too, leading like this will require a surplus of energy. Therefore, let’s talk about what needs you, as a human being, need to acknowledge and honor.

What mindset and self-care routines must you honor to cultivate optimism, resilience, and growth?

The circle of control

Despite being the smallest sphere, it is also the most essential. It serves as a reminder that all leadership essentially takes offset in self-leadership and how we manage our own energy, emotions, responses, attitude as well as our physical and mental health. This is where our true agency lies as well as our fuel generation!

Recognize and honor your self-care needs

Wise minds say that presence is the antidote to uncertainty. Ask yourself what boundaries and habits, such as physical exercise, rest, social and emotional support, you need to ground yourself. Accept that you cannot support and inspire others or identify opportunities if you cannot support yourself.

Here are a number of ways you can get started:

  • Define and accept what is within and outside of your personal control
  • Define and accept your emotions
  • Focus on your breathing
  • Exercise regularly
  • Pay attention to rest needs
  • Pay attention to nutrition
  • Finally, choose your response and how you want to show up (Here, calm, curiosity, and your own personal values will matter)

More on this last point below!

Respond with calm

There is a crucial difference between responding and reacting to something. How we chose to respond is effectively within our control. A response is less instant and emotional yet more thoughtful and rational than a reaction. Read more about the difference here.

As argued by Heather V. MacArthur in the Forbes article Leading In Times Of Uncertainty: How To Engage Optimism And Focus When Nothing Seems Predictable, times of uncertainty are often windows of opportunity if we can remain calm enough to spot them. 

Adapt a learning mindset

As a leader, it serves you to reframe uncertainty and change as challenging rather than threatening. Tap into curiosity and embrace learning about yourself, too. This includes defining the muscles you need to grow. In the article 6 strategies for Leading Through Uncertainty, HBR 2021, Rebecca Zucker and Darin Rowell argue leaders must learn to acknowledge and embrace the discomfort as an expected and normal part of the learning process. Hence, switch from a “know it all” to a “learn it all” and park ego, and perfectionism accordingly.

Define your values

“Sometimes being a leader isn’t about winning. Sometimes it’s about doing what’s right, instead of what’s powerful.”

— James Patterson

Times of uncertainty make or break leaders, and this might be your defining moment if you open your mind to it. The learning process will include defining, demonstrating, testing, and grounding yourself in your values. They will ultimately guide and shape your responses. 

How do you wish to show up? With transparency, credibility, empathy, accountability, or trust? Most likely with integrity. Cambridge dictionary defines integrity as the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that you refuse to change

Leading through uncertainty, especially when part of a bigger corporation, includes making compromises and accepting decisions that you yourself would not have made. But you always have more agency than you think in choosing how you show up, respond, conduct yourself, and how you make others feel. Also, you control what you do not compromise.

Uncertainty is a reminder that leadership is a mindset and a set of behaviors rather than a contemporary title. Ultimately, it is about your impact on the people you lead. By responding calmly with integrity, you can greatly increase your influence.

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