You got this.  While you may not think so, you know what to do. You’ve done it before.

Sure, you haven’t had to deal with a global pandemic, but if you have been a leader at any time during the last 20 years, you have had to lead through times of uncertainty, significant change, and complexity.  While COVID 19 is having impact on a larger scale, the skills you need to lead your teams and organizations through this time are the same.

How did you lead through the last major period of uncertainty that you experienced?  How did you see others react to the same uncertainty?

Leading Starts with You

All eyes look to you and others take their cue from how they see you handling this situation.  Successful leaders have very high self-awareness.  You pay attention to how you “show up”, the impact of what you do and what you say.  The channels for communication during these times are different, but you are still communicating.  In fact, you are probably communicating more information and more frequently.  Perhaps you are even more visible as a result of streaming video and teleconferencing.   Many who may only hear from you via an email or company newsletter are likely seeing you “live”.  They may even be seeing you in your home, where you appear more human and personal now than you ever have been. You can leverage this.

Those who thrive in changing times and succeed in leading through uncertainty demonstrate three strong characteristics.

Embrace the Reality of Leading through Uncertainty: Create Meaning

Start by asking yourself a few pertinent questions.  First, are you verifying what you know and identifying the questions you still have about the situation?  Second, are you checking your understanding with trusted others? Are you thinking about how the situation will affect yourself and others?  Third, are you aware of your underlying beliefs and how they inform your thinking about the situation and how you are interpreting it?

If you are not asking these questions, then you are likely defaulting to a “this too shall pass” approach and waiting for a return to “normal”.  It won’t.   The conditions your organization operates in are changing all the time – even during “normal” times.   You may survive with a wait-and-see approach, but you, your stakeholders, and your employees will miss the opportunities to individually grow and thrive.

Once you embrace the reality of your current uncertainty, your next challenge is to develop a strategy for supporting your team so that they can join with you.

Embrace the Opportunity of Leading through Uncertainty: Seek New Opportunities

Change opens doors to new possibilities.  There are more critical questions to ask yourself. Are you leading in such a way as to be able to see those open doors, or imagine what doors you might open that were heretofore closed?  Do you believe that you can still move forward without all the information you would like?  Are you clear on what you can and cannot control?  Do you see change as ultimately offering an opportunity to grow?  Can you generate new ideas and can you inspire others to do the same?  Can you manage your own response to the situation?  Are you willing and able to act quickly? Incrementally?  If you are thinking in these terms, the new possibilities that emerge – and there will always be new possibilities – will show themselves to others.  Are you and your team uniquely positioned to take advantage of what emerges?

Consider this brilliant example of leading through uncertainty by embracing opportunity. A local upscale French restaurant has seen its business and revenue nearly double since they were ordered to close their doors to dine-in customers.  Immediately, they introduced pick up “dinners for 4” for $40 to which they will add a bottle of wine for $12.  Next, they set up an outdoor grill with steaks, salmon, lamb chops, ribs and burgers for which they now have a steady drive-up business.  What’s more, they now offer free delivery within a 5-mile radius of their restaurant. None of these tactics had even been considered at the beginning of February.  Who knows what they will carry with them once the pandemic has ended? According to the owner, leading this experience through uncertainty will have lasting impact on how they do business and for every individual working there.

Embrace the Risk and Re-Imagine the Potential

Everything you do involves risk of some sort and it always has. Even making no change entails risk.  So, that doesn’t mean you ignore risk or don’t try to anticipate the new risks you may be taking. You can’t stop forward movement, but you work to move forward with intention.

To help embrace the risk, ask yourself if you are considering potential benefits as well as risks?  Are you willing to have candid conversations with key stakeholders and colleagues to ensure you are identifying and addressing those risks?  Are you willing to take personal accountability for your actions / inactions in response to the situation?  Do you model and create an environment where people know that they will not be punished if they take educated risks and are not successful?  Are you willing and able to welcome difference and divergent thinking? Do you truly believe and demonstrate that you can have a positive impact if you take a risk?

It is times like this, when you are leading through uncertainty, when the natural instinct of many people will be to keep their heads down and minimize personal risk.  Again, your business may well survive by doing this, but those who thrive through turmoil are not keeping their heads down right now.  As you read this, there are organizations that are re-imagining themselves by transforming their relationship with employees to one that is more caring and more connected or by identifying new and better ways to go to market. Some have streamlined operations through better use of technology or significantly redefined their supply chain strategy in a way that will change how all companies look at supply chains in the future. Others have built international collaborations that heretofore were considered impossible and discovered new applications for existing products and services that will last well beyond the pandemic.

How Will You Lead through Uncertainty?

As a leader who is leading through epic uncertainty during this historic global crisis, you have the unprecedented opportunity to transform your organization in a new way.

You got this. You have all the experience you need to thrive.

The only question – EVER –  is whether you will you seize the opportunity of leading through uncertainty.

Andy’s focus is customized team and organizational change consulting as well as executive coaching for growth-minded commercial organizations, government entities and non-profits. View full bio

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