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The Leadership Challenge: How to Deal Effectively with Uncertainty

September 13, 2020

When either thrust or eased into a leadership role, one of the outcomes is the leader being expected to have some, or even all, of the answers to problems facing the work team. As one moves up the organizational hierarchy, employees fully expect senior leaders to be purveyors of the future.

When an organization is going through turbulence, such as when a new competitor enters the market, employee insecurity feeds the need for answers.

This is an unrealistic expectation, especially with the huge number of events, many of which are inter-connected, from plunging commodity prices to terrorism attacks to environmental disasters to geo-political tensions to technological breakthroughs. Those who earn a leadership role, regardless of level, are warm blooded human beings, accompanied by personal insecurities and mental models–our individual set of assumptions about the world we hold.

With that expressed, an emerging double-sided competency that’s essential for any aspiring (including current) leader is the ability to synthesize information and to identify trends. The late management thinker Warren Bennis put it this way: “An effective leader sees through the fog of reality to interpret events and to make sense of the blurring and ambiguous complexity.”

Bennis’ comment helps reframe the myth of leaders needing to have the answers for their followers to instead providing clarity on issues. However, to achieve this level of capability in terms of clarity, a leader also needs to understand herself thoroughly and to be centred in how she carries out her leadership responsibilities. Five mind shifts are key to enable a leader to be proficient in dealing with change and the fog accompanying it.

1) Focus on opportunity, not the problem.
Break off the rearview mirror, which will only keep you glued to what was. Move forward by finding solutions that come from opportunity.

2) Emphasize the long-term, not the short-term.
Yes, tactical decisions are important for the day-today operation of your business or public sector organization. However, failure to position your organization for the long-term will weaken its ability to adapt to unexpected events.

3) View the whole; don’t fixate on one part.
Latching on to one aspect of an issue or problem will cause you to lose sight of the big picture, in turn diminishing your capacity to see opportunities and inter-connected solutions.

4) Learn to be a change adaptor instead of trying to control it.
Attempting to control one’s future is, to be blunt, a fool’s errand. The world is too complex, intertwined and unpredictable for any mortal to try and play that game. Learn to strengthen your adaptability and enjoy riding the wave of change. It’s less stressful and more stimulating.

5) Embrace trust; ditch being a doubter.
This fifth mind shift is very important in today’s volatile economy. Trusting your instincts and your peers and followers will make your job as a leader not only that much easier but you’ll improve your performance. Management consultant William Halal expressed it beautifully on the need for leaders to put aside the need for control:
The most unsettling change is that leaders will have to shed their mask of authority to meet people directly, facing all the stinging criticism and outrageous demands that have been suppressed by authority.”

Shedding the illusion of authority by both leaders and followers will force both sides to realize that they must learn to work together — essential in today’s competitive global economy. This means that leaders must encourage open discussions and shared decision-making, including ways to identify issues and resolve conflicts. And above all, leaders must be able to listen if they wish to understand the complex problems they face and the diverse views others hold.

Today, leaders are being called upon to deal with increasingly complex and interrelated problems. In some respects, the expectations being placed upon them are almost unrealistic. Transcending from the traditional approach where a leader was expected to be hard-nosed and analytical to people orientation and interpersonal leadership won’t be easy for some in management.

Unfortunately, those who resist the juggernaut of change, with the accompanying volatile uncertainty, will be left on the sidelines.

If there is no transformation inside each of us, all the structural change in the world will have no impact on our institution.

– Peter Block

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