Leading in Uncertain Times

As we face the serious and stressful challenge of the COVID-19 humanitarian crisis, we are forced to conduct business in unfamiliar ways. Prime among these is that we are working from home, where we must adapt to social distancing, new technologies, different distractions, and a stream of (usually bad) breaking news. Most firms’ business continuity plans (BCPs) focus on technical details and operational duties, not on the human aspect of working alone amidst significant uncertainty and angst. Ignoring the human element, critical for success at all times, is shortsighted. In times that call for our BCPs to be enacted, we need a high-functioning team more than ever.

Leadership differs from management—the daily practice of planning, budgeting, organizing, and problem solving. At its core, leadership relates to two things: 1) establishing direction and 2) improving, aligning, and motivating the team. Both aspects of leadership are much harder under uncertainty and when teams are isolated in work-from-home (WFH) situations.

In industries highly dependent on human knowledge, experience, and problem solving, leaders must be skilled at setting direction and motivating their teams in both good times and tough times. Our clients deserve it. Long-term success requires it.

Establishing Direction

Not all decision-making approaches work well in periods of uncertainty. Good times and confidence are like a high tide that lifts all boats—it is hard to tell whether a leader is truly up to the task until the tide of good fortune and certainty goes out. Establishing direction under uncertainty is an essential skill of a good leader.

In times of relative certainty, a range of decision-making approaches can work reasonably well, although many have a downside. In good times, many paths lead to good outcomes, reinforcing a sense of confidence among leaders in their decision-making ability. For some, reliance on past success leads to overconfidence. As the leaders of their organizations they believe they are best positioned to make important decisions and that the risk of a mistake is low. As a result, they do not solicit or value dissenting views for the contribution they can make to vetting decisions, which can lead to both mistakes and “teaching” others in the organization to withhold contrary information and views.

"Ignoring the human element
[in BCPs] is shortsighted."

Uncertainty changes everything. Current practice and direction may not be ideal, or even viable. Leaders who were not accustomed to soliciting divergent views may find themselves blindsided by unknown factors or unable to make decisions because of too little information. Many of these leaders fail the test of good leadership.