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How to lead through uncertainty

All leaders, regardless of sector, are facing unprecedented levels of disruption and uncertainty about the future

When running various organisational change sessions with leaders and managers one question would often come up – “when are things going to settle down?” It was understandable, if unrealistic. These leaders were often exhausted, having had numerous complex and frequently competing changes dumped on them from on high. Their people were anxious and they felt unable to reassure. They were trying to manage through the disruption of digitisation, new competition, or the need for greater collaboration, while not letting current quality levels dip and having to reduce costs. Sound familiar? All leaders, regardless of sector, are facing unprecedented levels of disruption and uncertainty about the future.

It used to be so much simpler. Remember the days when you had a 'change management' plan and you could plot it out on an Excel spreadsheet? It had a beginning, a middle and, most importantly, an end, and change was seen as a sequential linear activity. Not anymore. These days change is unending, unpredictable and as linear as a bowl of spaghetti.

So how can leaders gear up to cope with the levels and pace of disruption that is now required of them? We used to believe that if leaders worked more, knew more, planned more, controlled more then they could manage better. The truth is that just trying to do more no longer works. Leaders have a finite amount of hours, energy and resilience and trying to stay on top of, and control, the changes they are required to lead is ultimately futile.

But there are ways leaders can prepare themselves for an uncertain world.

1. It's not all about me

The leaders who will thrive will not be the egotists and narcissists who may have dominated the C-suite in recent years. It will be lower-ego leaders who see their primary purpose as enabling their team to do the best work of their lives. This requires leaders to invest much less time in their own personal achievements and much more in creating an environment where their team can be more creative, more productive, more agile. This requires the leader to really get to know their team as individuals; spending time understanding their personal motivations, their threat responses, and their strengths. It also means we need to value the leaders with humility so much more than the charismatic, individual achievers.

2. Give power away

It can be counter-intuitive during times of uncertainty, but by relinquishing some control leaders actually build a greater capacity for delivery. Treating people like adults who are more than capable of making sound judgements can reduce their reliance on a leader’s limited time and energy. Simon Sinek has written the definitive work on how to set broad direction for the team aligned to the purpose and values and then create space for them to deliver in ways they think best. It can also mean providing opportunities for the team to create their own rules such as TD Bank’s 'Kill a stupid bank rule' or Netflix’s 'take the annual leave you want' approach. But it can also be smaller acts of relinquishing power such as responding to requests for guidance or approval with “I’m not sure, what do you think?” or “Use your judgement, I trust you".

3. Broaden your stimuli

It’s not enough for leaders to only focus on profit and growth. Now we expect them to focus on reinvention at the same time. Leaders who are prepared to invest their time and energy in broadening out their range of stimuli will find this easier than those who surround themselves with more of the same. Whether this is going to events or reading outside of their professional expertise to develop fresh insights, actively seeking out different perspectives on a problem, or increasing the diversity of voices in teams – getting curious is a must for leaders trying to find a way through disruption.

Greater humility, giving up control and getting curious. Not a panacea for leaders in an uncertain world admittedly, but maybe the start of something better?

Lucy Adams is CEO of consultancy Disruptive HR and former HRD at the BBC