How to lead in uncertain times

11 May 2023

There’s no denying we are facing a time of great uncertainty.  Ongoing war in Ukraine, looming recession, climate fear, and the rise of generative AI are just some of the drivers. At times like these the role of leaders becomes increasingly pivotal. Leaders enable an organisation to continue to build, seize opportunities and grow rather than merely survive.

Strong leadership can enable teams to navigate economic headwinds with agility and resilience.  It helps us spot opportunities for innovation, focus on the things that matter, and sustain performance. But it’s far from easy.

Leaders will need to work through some tough questions: How do we do more with less? How do we cut costs while growing for the future? How do we drive efficiency without stifling creativity? They may also need to shoulder the emotional impact that uncertainty can create. 

As Neil Khaund, Forbes, points out “You may not be able to stop the ripple effects of a recession, but you can influence how much it’s going to impact your business and your team.”

So what can we learn from the most effective leaders and organisations?

1. Communicate clearly, honestly, regularly

In times of uncertainty, it’s easy for employees to lose energy and focus, to worry about immediate, personal things that matter most to them: Will I still have a job at the end of the month? Will I be able to pay the mortgage? How do I cover two roles and not just one? 

Uncertainty takes its toll on many things, from the quality of decision making to levels of motivation and productivity.  Often what’s needed most is what organisations don’t provide enough of – good, regular, clear communication. Rather than letting the ‘narrative’ grow arms and legs, as leaders it’s important to remember we have the power to inspire and uplift those around us. One of the most impactful ways to do this is by communicating clearly, honestly and regularly.


2. Be human – show courage and compassion

Every person’s story and challenges are unique; each person will respond in a different way. Taking time to listen will not just connect one person, it will demonstrate to others that you care. If there is a difficult conversation that needs to happen, invest the time to prepare and practice so that no matter what the message, the person feels treated with fairness, respect and dignity.


3. Look up and out

It’s very easy to put your head down and pedal fast to try and solve internal challenges or keep up with an increasing workload. The strongest leaders remember to look up, look out and focus on the future. Connecting with customers and keeping close to the market helps to quickly identify not only threats to the business but potential opportunities. Many significant innovations have been initiated during a downturn whilst competitors look the other way.


4. Get comfortable with uncertainty

In a downturn, external forces will swirl beyond your control. The most effective leaders look to control the controllable, while letting go of areas they cannot influence. What are the areas that you can influence that will add to your competitive advantage? Double down on developing your brand, reputation, or culture; Focus on product development; Take the opportunity to fine tune your team’s agility and effectiveness. Being proactive in building strengths will enable you to bounce back stronger.

All of this represents a big ask for the leaders of our organisations. The strongest organisations recognise this and make sure they invest in coaching and personal development. This enables them to ‘put their own oxygen mask on first’ so that they have the energy, confidence and resilience to sustain their own teams.

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