How leaders should act in times of uncertainty?
Let’s accept this with no uncertainty. We are living in times of extreme uncertainty. Be it the global politics or economics; our lives are clouded with a lot of uncertainty. Many economies & businesses around the world are stunned as to how to predict & plan for the future. Just see at the different predictions on oil prices made by renowned traders & analysts during last two years. Everyone seems to be so off-target.
Technology on the other hand is disrupting conventional business models so rapidly, that it is not even possible to be certain about what the future holds for many traditional industries & professions. The World Economic Forum research on ‘The Future of Jobs’identifies several technological, socio-economic, demographic & geo-political drivers of change which are already having far-reaching impacts on several industries & professions.
Times such as these demand some exceptional leadership qualities from the leaders in the business world. But, how should leaders act in the face of this uncertainty?
First of all, it is important for leaders to understand the significance of their role in steering their organizations through the uncertain seas. No one can respond appropriately to a situation if they don’t really understand the value & impact of their own response to that particular situation. Simply put – you have to demonstrate the understanding that how significant you & your decisions are; not only for your own self but to the future of your entire organization. Do not drown yourself under the weight of these expectations, but recount your successes & use them to boost your own confidence & morale. This will help you in becoming a self-confident leader; someone who trusts his own abilities. A leader with low self-confidence can never instil confidence in his/her followers.
Once you trust yourself to deliver, transfer this self-believe within your organization. Make everyone realize the potential they hold as an organization & how they can contribute in their individual capacity. This requires some real openness. A candid & two-way communication process is essential. As humans we are always hungry for information, more so when we are uncertain. Provide as much information to your people. Explain your plans & ask for their inputs. Be open to criticism & most importantly; be open to learning new insights. Be flexible & adaptive in your planning.
Your honest & open communication with your people should transform to action. The most glaring of these actions would be your ability to delegate authority & responsibility to them. It is often very difficult for leaders (especially for Founders/Co-founders) to let go of responsibilities. Avoid micro-managing your team & provide them space to perform. As Julie Cooper highlights in this articlepublished by The Guardian; in order to successfully delegate you should be:
- willing to delegate – this comes with the desire to see your team succeeding in their own unique ways
- not setting the bar impossibly high – let go of your perfectionist approach at times
- committed to your people & make sure to have their commitment towards the organization & the task at hand
One of the best ways to respond against uncertainty is to learn from your past failures. However, this should be done without considering your hindsight bias. Once you shed this cognitive bias, you are in a better position to make sound decisions. Remember, it is your decision-making that will make you stand out as a leader. So, your decisions should always be independent of your biases towards people, processes, markets & overall business environment. Your decision-making should not be egocentric or group-confirming. Seek out data & make well-informed decisions. Always be ready to unlearn as an individual & as an organizational leader.
As a leader, it is also significant to realize what changes are required to be made to successfully overcome the uncertainty. Authors Ronald Heifetz & Marty Linsky identify following two types of changes in their ‘Survival Guide for Leaders’:
- Technological Change – characterized by a clear problem definition, solution & ways for implementation. ‘Technical problems, while often challenging, can be solved applying existing know-how and the organization’s current problem-solving processes’.
- Adaptive Change – requires a novel solution & new learning. This‘demands that people give up things they hold dear: daily habits, loyalties, ways of thinking. In return for these sacrifices, they may be offered nothing more than the possibility of a better future’.
Many times, leaders respond to imminent ‘adaptive changes’ through technological measures. This definitely is not the right approach. Such a change will not be sustainable & in fact may incur unwanted costs.
For a leader to succeed in face of uncertainty, he/she needs to have faith in future.
‘If you don’t invest in the future and don’t plan for the future, there won’t be one.’ —George Buckley, CEO of 3M
It is this faith in a brighter future which propels people towards scaling seemingly impossible heights. Hope & optimism are the driving forces behind a leader’s conviction. A leader without conviction is like a boat without a rudder.
Being fearful of failure in such tough times is natural & understandable. But how you conquer your fear is a true measure of your leadership qualities. Remember what Nelson Mandela once said: ‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’
(Photograph taken at Pahang, Malaysia)