Leading Through Overwhelming Uncertainty

by | Oct 14, 2021 | CEO/Executive Directors | 0 comments

As a leadership coach, I get to talk to hundreds of CEOs and other leaders every year.

This year I’m seeing something different.

Leadership always has challenges. There are always areas of uncertainty. But lately, it seems the uncertainty is off the charts.

  • Are we experiencing inflation or is this transitory?
  • Will we face another economic downturn or is the economy about to take off?
  • Will my staff quit like millions of others have in the last few weeks?
  • If they don’t quit, will I be able to pay them what they are worth?
  • Should I invest heavily in cryptocurrency like Bitcoin? Or am I glad to be missing the rollercoaster ride of the cryptocurrency highs and lows?
  • Should we all go back to the office or should we stay working from home?

Leaders always need to make decisions. But right now the amount of decision making required to lead feels overwhelming.

It’s so overwhelming, many leaders are deciding to delay on big decisions. Opting to wait until they have more information.

Making Leadership Decisions in Times of Tremendous Uncertainty

Sometimes waiting is a sign of wisdom. But sometimes, waiting is just procrastination.

And it can become a dangerous spiral: the longer you wait, the more uncertainty you feel, and the more overwhelmed you become. So you put off making decisions even longer.

Captains in a Storm – Two Approaches to Leading When Overwhelmed

Think of leading through uncertainty as being a captain of a ship through a storm. One captain becomes so overwhelmed by the wind and the rain and the tossing and the turning that he puts of making decisions. He opts to drift. He hopes to ride out the storm and only act when he can see more clearly.

The other captain, in the same storm, looks at all the chaos around her. And decides what small actions she can take. She doubles down on the basics. She makes the decisions she can. Even small ones. And she gives her crew small but meaningful tasks. Activities that fit their expertise and help sort through specific areas of the chaos around them.

Both captains are in the storm. Both captains are facing overwhelming uncertainty. But which one would you rather be? The captain leads through the storm? Whose crew maintains a sense of purpose and pride? Or the captain who chooses to drift? Whose crew gets increasingly demoralized, feeling helpless in the middle of the storm?

You do have a choice. Choosing not to make that choice is still a choice.

3 Things Leaders Can Commit to in Times of Great Uncertainty

We are seeing a level of shared overwhelm unlike any we’ve seen in most of our lifetimes. It used to be a sector may be in a hard time. Or an industry. So leaders in those industries could look to other leaders to help challenge and inspire them. Almost like they were in the storm but they could keep a connection with somebody outside of the storm.

But in the midst of a global pandemic, we are all in the storm. So the fatigue and confusion are often shared even by those we might have turned to for certainty in the past.

Here are three things I’m seeing help leaders in this very challenging time.

  1. Committing to the Basics

    What are the non-negotiable that need to happen? Take sales, for instance. If you rely on sales to generate revenue, revisit the basics. Particularly the activities closest to the decision making process. Like prospecting calls and sales calls. Are the calls getting made? And are the follow up calls getting made? If not, work with your team to commit to getting consistent again. Figure out what wording or actions may need to be adjusted given the high levels of uncertainty people are facing. But remember: There’s nothing kind about not selling.

    Whatever the basics are in your space, revisit these and see where you can stop drifting.

  2. Recommit to Learning

    In times of stress, our brains are designed to focus. That focus can help in spurts. But chronic stress leads us to live in a shrunken space. A space that doesn’t help us make great decisions. One way out of that is be learning from others. Learn in whatever ways help you the most. Books. Podcasts. Conversations with peers.

    The type of learning that seems to be helping leaders most right now is not the learning that makes vast organizational changes or the writing of complex business plans or strategies.

    The type of learning I’m seeing help leaders most in this time of uncertainty is learning that helps them see from a different perspective. Learning about how humans interact with the world – like personality assessments or frameworks like the Enneagram. Or learning history from the perspective of someone different from themselves.

    The type of learning that seems to help leaders in this particular time of uncertainty is learning that helps give them ways to see the different ways their staff and customers may be seeing the world. And learning that helps the leader identify her own blindspots.

  3. Committing to What isn’t Changing

    A third thing that is helping leaders right now is committing to clarifying their personal values and their organizational values. They are able to say to their team, “We don’t know exactly what lies ahead. But we do know _______” and talk about their values. Their commitment to treating people with respect. Or to having each other’s back. Or to trusting each other.

    No matter what comes, you can be sure your core values will stay the same. And you’ll find knowing these core values help you make better and faster decisions, no matter what storm you’re facing. You may not know how a decision will impact your team, but you will be able to decide anyway because it is in alignment with your core values.

Leading in Times of Uncertainty

These are some of the most challenging times people alive have faced. But humans have gone through many overwhelming times over the millennia. And we’re still here. We’ll get through this too.

As you face your leadership responsibilities each day, commit to what is in your area of influence. Commit to the basics of your work. Commit to expanding your perspective a bit by learning how people experience the world. And commit to clarifying and making decisions based on your core values.

The storm will still be raging, but you’ll find yourself leading more confidently. And you’ll find your team re-energized by the meaningful work you help lead.

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