Leading In Uncertainty

by | Mar 19, 2020 | Leadership


Leadership, (or the lack thereof), is revealed through adversity and uncertainty. The measure of leadership is not found in how one leads in security and success; it’s how one leads in uncertainty and chaos

Right now, we are living in uncertain times. Our generation has never experienced a pandemic like this and the effects it has had (and will continue to have) on our medical, economic, and social systems. 

Eventually, the curve will flatten (or fluctuate) and we will figure out how to live in a new norm. As that happens, we are going to see two types of leaders emerging from this chaotic season. The true leaders who rose up and had a significant impact on their workplaces and communities. And the other category. The fake leaders who were merely pretending to lead will crumble due to their lack of maturity and courage. 

The question is “Which category will people say your leadership falls into?”

Here are five tools to help you lead both yourself and your team effectively through uncertainty:

Note: I’m going to focus on leading your team but all of these tools can be used to lead yourself and your family.


Confront the Brutal Facts

Great leaders run to problems, not away from them. It doesn’t mean they have all the answers figured out and it doesn’t mean they aren’t fearful. It simply means they have the courage to lean into the unknown and figure out the best path forward.

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, calls this “confronting the brutal facts.” He says, “All good-to-great companies began the process of finding a path to greatness by confronting the brutal facts of their current reality…It is impossible to make good decisions without infusing the entire process with an honest confrontation of the brutal facts.”

A leader must have the courage to accurately diagnose their current reality even if the information comes back bleak. It’s like getting a checkup at the doctor. We have to know exactly what the data is telling us before we can start coming up with solutions. 

Once we know our current reality, the next tool is communication.


Transparent Communication 

False hope is de-motivating and demeans your employees. Leaders need to trust that their employees can handle honest but difficult truth. When you know your current reality, you need to provide transparent communication to your team. 

How do you practice transparent communication? Use these steps.

    1. Straight talk: Don’t beat around the bush and use too many words. Be concise and to the point. When communicating in written form, use short sentences and paragraphs, and bullet points.
    2. Be authentic: Be real with your team. If you don’t have answers right now, let them know. They will appreciate the honesty. Most people don’t expect their leaders to have all the answers. It’s actually refreshing.
    3. Be confident: You can communicate that you don’t have the answers while still being confident. Where does your confidence lie? Not in yourself. It lies in your team. You can be confident that you have the right people to figure out solutions.
    4. Confirm your commitment to the team: Remind them you are committed to them as individuals, not just employees. Andy Stanley says, ““People won’t give their best unless they know their leader is committed to give his best.” 
    5. Create opportunity for open dialogue: Once your team hears “the brutal facts,” give them the opportunity to vent, express their worry and/or frustration and work through their emotions.

It’s important to recognize that you need to communicate to your team before you come up with solutions. The longer you don’t communicate and stay silent, the more uneasy they will feel. Sometimes the best communication can be: “We are not quite sure how we are going to navigate this unique situation. For now, we are going to give everyone paid time off and we will let you know by the end of the week our next steps.”

This moves us to our next tool which is finding solutions


Find Solutions

Involve your employees in the process of finding solutions. When they are informed of the current situation that the company sits in, then they can be a part of the solution. And they might surprise you with their ideas. Also, when you involve your employees in the decision-making process, they will be more bought in.

Remember, in times of adversity some of our best innovations and ideas come out.

When it comes to finding solutions, whatever solutions you decide upon, your key leaders need to be the first ones to make sacrifices. In Simon Sinek’s TED Talk Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe, Sinek tells the story of when Barry-Wehmiller, a large manufacturing company in the Midwest, was faced with the problem of having to save 10 million dollars due to the 2008 recession. Instead of conducting layoffs, CEO Bob Chapman created a furlough program. Every employee, including him, would take 4 weeks of unpaid vacation. They didn’t have to take the 4 weeks consecutively. But they each had to take 4 weeks total by the end of the year. This allowed everybody to make a little sacrifice and saved both money and people’s jobs. 

Another example is Gary Kelly, CEO at Southwest. His first solution was to immediately take a 10% pay cut. Of course, this one solution will not completely solve all of their issues. But it’s a start.


Keep Communicating

During these uncertain times, it is almost impossible to create a plan or solution for the next month, let alone for the next 3 or 6 months. The best thing you can do is create “mini-plans” or solutions for the next two weeks. This gives you time to continue the process of confronting the brutal facts and making the necessary adjustments each step of the way. 

Remember, if you don’t keep communicating, your silence is loud. Your team will start believing the information they read on the internet or hear on the news. (Which is not always bad.) But your job as a leader is to control (not manipulate) the information so that your team has the most accurate information to make the best decisions for themselves and their family. 

Our final tool doesn’t occur last in the process, but is a mindset that we must have throughout leading in uncertainty. 


Stay Positive

Earlier I mentioned confronting the brutal facts. Just because the situation looks bleak or is unknown doesn’t mean we can’t see the positive in any situation. We must put into practice the Stockdale Paradox.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins tells the story of Admiral Jim Stockdale who was the highest-ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War. Stockdale received the Medal of Honor for his leadership of his men during this time. He fought for the rights of prisoners, created internal communication systems so prisoners didn’t feel isolated, and even exchanged secret intelligence information with his wife through letters.

Collins got the opportunity to interview Stockdale and he asked, “How on earth did you deal with it (being a P.O.W.) when you did not know the end of the story.” Stockdale replied: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end.” 

Collins and his team came up with the Stockdale Paradox: Retain faith that you will prevail in the end regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. 

That’s what great leaders do. They lean into the unknown no matter how bleak it looks and also stay positive knowing that they and their team will not only survive this adverse season, but find ways to create a new norm and thrive in the midst of it.


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On a personal note, I know that these times are difficult for everyone and especially business leaders. I started the Shawn Welch Company because of my passion to help equip leaders and their teams by maximizing their potential through leadership development. If you would like more resources on how to lead during this uncertain time, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. All of our initial consultations are free. I would love to start the conversation on how we can help you lead with significance during uncertainty.