Leading in times of uncertainty
Today, uncertainty is everywhere.
We have all heard anecdotes about some of the world’s most valuable companies … the world’s largest taxi company, Uber, owns no cars, the world’s largest accommodation provider, Airbnb, owns no property, and so on. But even for them, times are uncertain. Because people did not travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, they were some of the most disrupted companies as in a wink they became just about irrelevant.
How do you as a business leader navigate these times of uncertainty?
Dana Brownlee wrote about the workplace traits you will need after COVID-19 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/danabrownlee/2020/05/07/7-leadership-traits-for-the-post-covid-19-workplace/?sh=7109bea12d4d).
She says that while honesty has always been an important leadership trait, this time another level of honesty is needed, namely candour, and that this is arguably the best antidote for a climate of anxiety and cynicism in the workplace. People respond so much better to the known (even if the news isn’t great) than to the unknown (which tends to fuel more anxiety) or, even worse, to half-truths or unjustified optimism (which can irreparably damage trust in the long term).
As a leader, you should have consistent, reliable and fact-based communication with your stakeholders − this is the key ingredient to bringing organisations together and reducing workplace anxiety.
Leaders often wear many hats, and as workers return to the workplace, leaders will become ‘counsellors in chief’ in many ways and will have to show empathy. Brownlee points out that the pandemic has touched so many in such profound ways that many employees will be working while they are still grieving. That is why leaders at all levels must tap into a level of sensitivity as they consider changes to long-standing policies (such as sick leave and time off) to better fit their organisation’s new normal.
Many companies now realise the advantage of letting employees work from home, but to manage hybrid, non-located teams does not just require a shift in mindset but also in day-to-day operations. It is important for leaders to adopt a different style of leadership to manage hybrid teams and ensure that virtual teams are brought together regularly – albeit it online.
But maybe the most important is leaders’ ability to be flexible and adaptable – the pandemic has shown us that in order to adapt to the ‘new normal’, you have to be flexible and willing to do things out of the ordinary.
Brownlee also says that while leaders are often expected to know everything and to make perfect decisions, the truth is that they are human and fallible. And in these uncharted waters, one of the biggest mistakes a leader can make is to pretend they know more than they do. In these times they will find themselves needing to rely on expertise they don’t have in order to make the best decisions. As a result, humility will be a huge asset.
And finally, as leaders return to whatever the ‘new normal’ will be, it will be just as important for them to listen as to lead. This may be one of those rare situations where hierarchy matters less and mass opinion could dictate the next steps for the business.
Many of the qualities listed above have traditionally been seen as tertiary − nice-to-have − qualities, but in these unprecedented times, they have become essential for enabling leaders to lead organisations through a time of uncertainty.
Gerinda Engelbrecht, Editor