The skill of leading through uncertainty
Following Theresa May’s decision to step down as Prime Minister and her potential successor to be decided shortly, I wanted to share a number of practical insights into how leaders can help themselves, and their teams, to handle uncertainty.
The biggest challenge for the new Conservative leader will be Brexit. Indeed, leaving the EU poses many challenges. There are threats of the economy weakening and of years of uncertainty. Equally, there are opportunities for greater freedom and wider trading options. But for everyone, there is a strong sense of uncertainty about the future. And one thing is for sure: now, more than ever, people will feel the need for leadership.
A lot of Pearn Kandola’s work in leadership development involves testing and challenging leaders in unfamiliar situations. We can gain a great deal of insight into a leader’s behaviour, mindset and decision making style when they are stretched and taken outside of the usual zones of familiarity. This is because intense pressure causes people to revert to a range of personal strategies that will either increase or reduce leadership effectiveness.
Many studies have made strong links between the ability to cope with uncertainty and our personality, while other studies have linked the use of positive affect and reframing (the capacity to see situations from a wide range of perspectives) as being critical to handling uncertainty. From years of observing leadership in action, however, there are a number of very important and practical strategies, some of which may seem counter-intuitive, that lead to greater effectiveness in leading others. These are:
The strongest leaders have the ability to reflect on what they are thinking and feeling (it’s called meta-cognition) in a way that gives them more choices in their response and enables the leader to adapt and learn more quickly than their peers.
One of the hardest transitions for any leader is moving from being the expert to being responsible for experts. A strong temptation for many under pressure is to resort to seeking details and clinging to facts, in order to prove worth to others. Instead, this gets in the way of focusing on what people really need – greater vision, strategic plans and support.
Some leaders, under pressure, feel an overwhelming need to take greater control. While clarity and direction from leaders can of course be important in handling uncertainty, taking control from others simply undermines the self-belief of followers at a time when they need opportunities to build and sustain personal confidence.
The temptation for many is to shoulder fears and concerns about the future. Again, nobody appreciates ranting or screaming in pressured situations, but being open about fears and seeking opinions and ideas from others enhances, rather than diminishes effectiveness as a leader.
The final point is the need for communication. Effective leaders know that followers need to hear and know what is going on. Bluffing, covering up or giving half-truths are obvious ways to destroy trust in teams – the only option is to communicate openly, honestly and frequently.
It is during times of turbulence, such as the collapse of the banking and finance system in 2008 and the decision to leave the EU, that organisations learn about the qualities of leadership. In the past, ‘charismatic’ and ‘inspirational’ leadership models were held to describe the essence of leadership, based on the notion that having certain (often male) characteristics was essential to leading others. In recent times, however, responsible, ethical and moral leadership have taken centre stage. Perhaps from here, in the constantly changing and uncertain times ahead, we will see an increasing focus on connected and inclusive leadership?