To many people, the world appears a mess. They see senseless wars, extreme weather patterns, rising tensions, political division, and the list goes on. Leading successfully in times of uncertainty can be an enormous challenge. Nevertheless, the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith once observed, “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” Uncertainty and anxiety can be found on many levels — from the international stage to the sales floor of a small business. Nautilus CEO Jim Barr notes, “Be a leader long enough, and you’ll find yourself facing unexpected challenges and periods of uncertainty somewhere along the way. In times of uncertainty, as many businesses are currently addressing, your team will be looking to you for leadership, which can be difficult because, after all, you’re human, and it’s tough to stay confident when you don’t know what’s next. As a leader, your job is to stay calm and steady the ship through rough waters.”
Suggestions for Leading During Uncertain Times
Don A. Moore, the Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Chair in Leadership at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley, and Max H. Bazerman, the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, write, “If you are looking for fool-proof strategy for obtaining certainty, we have bad news for you — the world is complicated and markets are difficult to predict.” They add, “But, if you are looking for ideas to manage the uncertain future, we have good news. There are tools for thinking through uncertainty and using it to plan and make decisions.” Numerous lessons were learned during the pandemic and other past crises as anxiety levels rose and the future looked uncertain. Below are six suggestions for leading during uncertain times that experts insist have been tested and proved effective.
1. Lead with transparency and vulnerability. As Barr noted above, leaders are human. Displaying that humanity can help you and your employees get through difficult times. Joy Nwaiwu, a community manager at Dantown, explains, “Transparency engineers confidence! If you aren’t open with your team, they’ll presumably imagine the worst.” Benoni Tagoe, President of Raedio, adds, “[During times of uncertainty] is not the time to act as if you know it all. Instead, [it] is the time to assure others, conveying the sentiment that ‘hey, this is my first time experiencing this too.’ … It’s important to read your team. Spend a few meetings observing and listening to them. You’ll gain more by letting them speak first, before responding to their ideas and opinions.”
2. Focus on the long term. Barr explains, “When you’re in the thick of uncertainty, it can be easy to forget that what you’re experiencing is temporary. Keep focused on your organization’s long-term mission, vision, values and strategy.” Moore and Bazerman add, “Think in expected values. The essence of rationality is selecting the course of action with the highest expected value.” During the pandemic, Enterra Solutions® developed the Enterra Global Insights and Decision Superiority System™ (EGIDS™) to help clients do just that.
3. Communicate. Analysts from RHR International observe, “As people struggle to make sense of a new situation, they are particularly hungry for information and analysis during the opening stages. For this reason, you may find that they are most open to communication efforts delivered at the onset. Seizing early opportunities to share available information can have greater impact than waiting to deliver ‘perfect’ news at a later date.”
4. Embrace uncertainty. Nwaiwu writes, “Given that our brains are hardwired to look upon the lack of certainty as a risk or threat, it’s physiologically normal to feel worn out when faced with unfamiliar situations. This is especially true for high achievers with careers thriving on always knowing or finding the ‘right’ answer. These unpleasant feelings can slowly become a significant barrier to learning, future growth, and ultimately performance in general. Instead of pushing these feelings aside, we must learn to acknowledge and embrace the discomfort associated with an uncertain circumstance as an expected and regular part of the learning process.” Moore and Bazerman add, “The world is full of uncertainty. Ignoring that uncertainty and pretending you can make perfect predictions is either disingenuous or delusional. You will make better decisions when you accurately incorporate uncertainty into your own thinking and your calculations of expected value.”
5. Don’t try to go it alone. Sometimes leaders embrace the erroneous idea that they must carry the entire burden in uncertain times. The staff at Belbin writes, “Leadership shouldn’t be restricted to the organizational chart. Collective leadership boosts engagement and encourages others to take greater responsibility for outcomes. Rather than perceiving the sharing of responsibility as jeopardizing authority, we should celebrate the diverse forms of leadership in our teams and take comfort in the fact that the pressure is not all on one person’s shoulders.” Steve Arizpe, President and Chief Operating Officer for Insperity, adds, “In times of economic concerns, set the expectation for employees to become more engaged. Ask employees to seek out new business, consider ways to streamline processes and identify inefficiencies to help cut costs. This form of engagement helps with employee morale, shows employees their input is valued and directly impacts business success.”
6. Plan for multiple scenarios. Barr explains, “Action beats anxiety every time. If you’re feeling uncertain about the future, planning for multiple scenarios can help you feel more confident and more prepared, too. Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson said it best: ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ Spend time thinking about different versions of the future. Will sales go up or down? Could the supply chain develop bottlenecks that complicate the way you produce or distribute products? How could you potentially deal with these situations? Create plans A, B, C, D and adjust from there.” The Enterra Global Insights and Decision Superiority System mentioned earlier can help organizations do just that. Driven by Enterra’s artificial intelligence engine — the Enterra Autonomous Decision Science™ (ADS®) platform — EGIDS can help business leaders rapidly explore a multitude of options and scenarios.
RHR International analysts assert, “In uncertain times, it is essential to bridge the conceptual difference between ‘leading’ and ‘managing.’ Organizations need leaders to show the way forward and instill a sense of energy and inspiration. They need the same leaders to be visibly involved, making sure that visions are translated into concrete and sensible action plans, and that those programs are actively pursued and followed through.” Arizpe agrees that leaders need to be visibly involved but he doesn’t believe they always need to take center stage. He notes, “From the coronavirus pandemic to inflation and supply chain disruptions, the past several years have presented significant challenges for businesses. Executives steer the ship through these challenges, yet much of leadership’s work occurs behind the scenes.” Why is leadership during uncertain times so important? According to author Andy Stanley, “Uncertainty is a permanent part of the leadership landscape. It never goes away.”
 Jim Barr, “Five Keys To Leading Through Uncertain Times,” Forbes, 14 September 2022.
 Don A. Moore and Max H. Bazerman, “Leading with Confidence in Uncertain Times,” Harvard Business Review, 31 August 2022.
 Joy Nwaiwu, “Top 10 Strategies for Leading through Uncertainty,” Turing.
 Benoni Tagoe, “6 Tips for Effective Leadership in Uncertain Times,” Rolling Stone, 15 November 2021.
 Staff, “Leadership in Times of Uncertainty,” RHR International, July 2021.
 Staff, “5 Tips for Leadership in Uncertain Times,” Belbin.
 Steve Arizpe, “How The Best Executives Show Leadership in Times of Uncertainty,” Entrepreneur, 23 January 2023.