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How Great Leaders Handle Uncertainty and Ambiguity
“Your capacity as a leader will be determined by how well you learn to deal with uncertainty.” — Andy Stanley
Leadership and uncertainty go hand in hand. Without times of uncertainty, there would be no need for leadership. The role and purpose of a leader is to carry an organization to success in the face of uncertainty—to succeed where others may falter.
Dealing with uncertainty is what leaders do.
That said, sometimes uncertainty can be overwhelmingly exceptional. Circumstances such as the currently unfolding global pandemic, pose challenges that push even seasoned leaders to the limits of their capabilities.
Certain leadership skills are of greater value during such times of strife. It is wholly unsurprising that the roots of these leadership skills all reside in leadership maturity and optimism.
A leader cast into a whirlwind of uncertainty can either become an “uncertainty absorber/simplifier” or an “uncertainty amplifier.”
Your goal is to be an uncertainty absorber. How do you accomplish that goal? Upon what leadership skills do you predicate your uncertainty-absorbing position?
Embrace Change and Disruption
Uncertainty pushes us out of our comfort zones. Thus, it forces us to be creative, innovative, and more resilient. Mature leaders who are capable of seeing the big picture amid complex and unfamiliar situations are often at their best during such times.
With every disruption comes opportunity. Every setback carries a lesson and acts as a stepping stone for the intelligent leader.
Do not play defense. Be proactive. And communicate this attitude to your team and overcome, together, the feelings of powerlessness that uncertainty often fosters.
Don’t Dither. Act.
You may not be aware of the strategy your superiors will follow, but there is plenty you can do on your own.
During times of uncertainty, identify something you can do for the success of your organization and swing into action pragmatically and decisively. But do not overreach. Stick to the basics and aim to deliver value that way. Get your team into top shape and do the best possible work you can.
Intelligent leaders may not know what is ahead, but they can make educated bets: those who understand the value-drivers of their organization are never completely in the dark about the options senior management may consider. If you have an idea about the likely changes, do your best to position yourself and your team well for their adoption.
Set small, short-term goals in anticipation of your superiors’ decisions and start acting on them. Decisive action dispels uncertainty for your reports, allaying their anxieties.
Aim for Emotional Stability
Another benefit of taking decisive action amid uncertainly is that such actions propel you and your team past the realm of reactive emotions.
By acting decisively, you can limit emotional reactivity.
Reach out to your peers, superiors, and reports to gather information on the likely direction of your organization. Communicate your conclusions to your team and aim to anticipate their questions. Make a point of communicating more often than you normally would and keep feedback channels open in all directions.
Get your emotions under control. Do not hesitate to request assistance from your peers and superiors in this regard if you feel that you need it.
Emotional reactivity distorts reality. By defeating it, you will avoid its pitfalls, such as taking action based on rumors, or out of frustration or fear.
Use Others’ Expertise
As I have pointed out in my Intelligent Leadership Executive Coaching program, leaders need a reservoir of positive experiences that they can pull from for inspiration in times of need. If they do not have such positive experiences themselves, they can always benefit from others’ stories—from the present and the past. They may read about the experiences of, or speak to, respected superiors, elders, leadership development professionals, teachers, and others.
Consulting your peers should always be an option as well. You can also leave the comfort of your organizational network, and reach out to thought leaders and leadership development professionals, both nationally and globally.
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