Navigating Uncertainty

I recently sat in a planning session with a couple of leaders. We started by connecting and sharing about the mind space we are in. Instead of predominant excitement as you would normally expect at the beginning of a new year, we heard stories of real tragedies and challenges – hospitalisations of loved ones, death, and economical setbacks. There were also some hope-giving and inspiring testimonies, but they were few and far between. Our lives have changed radically, and so has our way of life.

The bottom line was that we as leaders acknowledged that we are leading in times of great uncertainty. And later I realised that uncertainty is not only a practical reality of unpredictable circumstances, but something much deeper: it is a mind-set and also an emotion that need to be managed well. But how?

Some years ago, as part of an intense leadership process for high ranking police officers, we took the participants out on on sea on sailing boats, blindfolded half of them and let the other half lead them out of the cabin, over the deck to the front and back. It was a nerve wrecking experience to both the leader and the follower – following or leading in unfamiliar, unstable and uncertain circumstances. (Of course we took the necessary safety precautions.) They gained insights and learned lessons that I believe will stay with them for life.

Here are some of the leadership lessons:

  • Be calm: Before you lead, you need to calm yourself down. Anxious leaders do not operate well, transfer anxiety to others, and easily allow their emotional minds to block creativity, listening and good rational thinking.
  • Self-leadership: Leaders need to exercise spiritual, mental and emotional management first. One way to do it, is deep inner work and to keep your self-talk positive, true and hopeful. And then also draw from your spiritual life, knowing why you are here (purpose).
  • Be knowledgeable: Familiarise yourself with the information available and the task at hand, but do not over-do and over-analyse it. Make peace with what you do not know (yet).
  • Engage & be Other-focused: As soon as you start to lead, you need to focus on the needs of the team mate you are leading while sensitive to the demands of the situation. Be present, be aware. Choose the best position for every part of the journey, whether in front, behind or next to him/her. That is situational leadership.
  • Caring and motivation: Use all the tools available to help and show that you care. People care how much you care, not how much you know. But care without smothering and parenting (disempowering). Your team members are powerful beings, designed to help themselves and others. So, encourage, motivate and give hope that they can get to the other side successfully. Say things in the moment like: “yes, yes, you are getting there” and “well done, we are making progress”.
  • Information empowers: Remember: you are the eyes of the other person. You can see what they cannot. Give information where you are and where you are heading. In Covid-19 we can actually all help each other to see the “now” and the way forward, but leaders normally have more access to knowledge resources and can see further and deeper.
  • Hold-on points: On the boats it was wise to let people hold on to “certainties” and “stabilities”, whether it is the rail, the sail post, or even yourself (although you might be unstable yourself). It gives the feeling of “something that’s stable and won’t give way”. In real life there are always things that do not change easily and will still be there after all the changes. It is good to talk about it, and enjoy it.
  • Keep going: If you stand still, you will for sure not get there. Sometimes it’s okay to stop for a short while to take stock, but then you need to move on again.

The worst you can do, is being passive, wait and hope for better days or for a magical rescuer to arrive one day, and in the meantime hide behind your work or whatever. No, engage and lead! Your team, family, community and business need you.

Every wave of challenge also brings energy and opportunity. Don’t fight it – use and manage it… and bring your boat safely to the other side of the storm, no matter how long it takes!