How to Lead in Uncertain Times – Looking Beyond the Coronavirus

Eric Stutzman

uncertain times, future, prediction, leadership, workplace culture, coronavirus, covid-19, pandemic

What does it mean to lead through uncertainty? Amid global concerns regarding the coronavirus, leaders everywhere are impacting their communities and workplaces with their responses. Some responses are not helping while others are. We all take cues about how to behave, and even how to feel about things from the people around us, especially from those whose influence shapes our lives – our leaders.

During the 2008 housing crisis, we learned two valuable lessons as an organization:

  • When a leader expresses their anxiety in strong ways, followers start to panic. One leads to the next.
  • Fluctuations in housing markets, stock markets, and consumer confidence are just that – they are fluctuations. They pass.

So, what should leaders do in uncertain times?

Here are five strategies to help guide your team through uncertainty:

1. Remain focused on your mission and values.

It’s easy to get distracted by global concerns and invest too much attention in how to respond. Although we need to be prudent and think through our plans for when things are difficult, we also need to keep our organization and staff focused on our reason for existing – our core services and how we want to behave as we work. If we lose focus on our mission and values, we get lost and trouble follows.

2. Stay calm.

Remember that others look to you for guidance. Your emotions and expressions will be felt, scrutinized, and interpreted. As a leader, your voice is amplified by your position of influence and power, so take time to ground yourself each day. If you need to express your anxieties or fears, do so quietly with other leaders, then turn your attention back to your mission and values, your work, and your plans. When you present to other staff, customers, clients, or stakeholders, do so with the long view in mind. If you remain calm, it will help others do the same.

As a leader, your voice is amplified by your position of influence and power, so take time to ground yourself each day.
3. Be realistic.

Being realistic means taking stock of the assets and strengths you already have. It means staying attuned to what is happening around you and seeking a variety of perspectives from people both inside and outside of your organization. It also means looking for reliable news sources. As you gather information, plan for both contingency and normal operations, always relying on your strengths and assets. Be transparent about risks as you communicate with staff or followers, and work with those around you to build a plan. When people have a plan and are focused on their work, their fears will subside.

4. Take the long view.

Uncertain times pass. They pass as we work together to deal with the risks and uncertainty. While uncertain times often bring a measure of pain, they also bring growth when we emerge out of them. Ask yourself what your world looks like on the other side of the uncertain times. Where do you want to be as an organization or community? Keep your eyes focused on a promising future and work towards it.

5. Show compassion.

Some people within our organizations are more vulnerable to the disturbances created by uncertainty. Vulnerability comes from having fewer resources, whether they be emotional, physical, or financial. We must stay attuned to those who may be experiencing vulnerability and do what we can to help mitigate risk for them. In the case of a novel virus, we can support people to stay home when they are sick through both our communication and through our employee benefits. Consider where people are either vulnerable, or perceive that they are vulnerable, and then ask yourself what you can do as a leader to provide resources. As you reduce the vulnerability of individuals, you also reduce your organizational vulnerability.

Let’s all take a deep breath, release our fears, and then focus on what we can do.


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Author: Eric Stutzman
CEO, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

Eric is the co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. The book is available on our website.

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