Leading Through Uncertainty


One of the biggest challenges leaders face is leading through uncertainty.  The current COVID-19 situation is certainly one of those times. 

Uncertainty creates stress, so it is more important than ever for CEOs and business owners to step up and lead their teams with confidence.  Here are my 12 tips for effectively leading through uncertainty:

  1. Communicate – Especially in times of uncertainty, the grapevine can run rampant.  It is important for everyone to hear from you directly about the situation and what you are doing.  Communicate frequently and in small sound bites.
  2. Lead by Example – Understand that everyone is watching you – even when you think they are not.  Everything you do and say is under scrutiny.  Are you frantic or calm?  Are you withdrawing or making yourself available to your people?  Are you following company policy (e.g. staying home when you are sick), or are you breaking your own rules?  Your behavior sends a very strong message.
  3. Create Contingency Plans – What if your largest supplier shuts down temporarily?  What if your customers stop buying your products and services for a month?  What financial resources are available?  What happens if schools and childcare centers close and your employees need to stay home with their kids?  What will you do if someone at your company tests positive?  Create contingency plans for various scenarios in case you need to implement them quickly.
  4. Be Decisive – It’s ok not to have all the answers.  Ask your team for input and brainstorm with them on areas where you unsure of the best approach.  Seek outside input from your peers, such as your fellow Vistage members.  Once you’ve gathered input from others and evaluated the potential risks and rewards, then go ahead and make those decisions, no matter how challenging.  Procrastination only leads to more stress and uncertainty for everyone.
  5. Inspire Confidence and Teamwork – Let your team know that you believe in them.  It’s ok to admit to them that you do not know the potential impact of the situation on your business.  Just let them know that you are glad you are entering this period of uncertainty with such a strong team on your side.  Inspire confidence that together you can get through anything that comes your way. 
  6. Delegate Small Decisions – A sense of control alleviates stress caused by uncertainty, so find opportunities to allow your employees to exercise control within their departments.  For example, can employees within a department figure out how they are going to cover the work if someone is out, rather than being told that everyone needs to work 10-hour days?   For the short term, can they control moving the weekly meeting to virtual rather than meeting in person in the conference room?  Delegating some of the smaller decisions allows you and your management team to focus on more strategic decisions.
  7. Offer Support – Understand that some of your employees may be feeling overwhelmed and fearful.  So even if you do not feel stressed, be aware that others may be experiencing extreme stress.  They may be worried about the health of an older relative, or their personal financial situation.  Remind your employees about resources that are available to them, such as your EAP (Employee Assistance Program) or other mental health or financial resources.
  8. Practice Self-Care – Are you taking care of yourself?  Getting enough sleep?  Exercising and eating right?  Are you giving yourself mental health breaks?  Taking care of yourself can help protect your immune system and enable you to be at your best.
  9. Include Humor – Laughter is a terrific stress-reducer.  Are there ways to inject appropriate humor into the workplace?  For example, we are being reminded to wash our hands with soap and water for 20 seconds at a time.  A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times listed 20 songs that you could wash your hands to, such as “Stayin Alive” by the Bee Gees, “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas, and “Karma Chameleon” by the Culture Club.  Could you pipe those songs into the bathrooms to add a bit of humor while encouraging them to practice good hygiene?   Or could you start the weekly meeting with a funny clip from a movie?
  10. Encourage Breaks – Exercise and sunshine can reduce stress.  Consider encouraging your employees to take short breaks to walk outside.
  11. Fix Existing Problems – Does the current situation allow you to make changes that you’ve been procrastinating?  Is it time to update employee policies or terminate that underperforming employee?  This time of uncertainty may be the perfect time to act and fix existing problems.
  12. Identify Potential Opportunities – Are there opportunities in this time of uncertainty to provide a new product or service to existing customers or sell to a new market?  What long-term effects might the pandemic have on your industry?  How can you adapt your business model to a new normal?  Staying focused on opportunities and possibilities can give you an advantage over your competition.  It is also much more fun than looking only at the negative impact of the current situation. 

Companies that are well-led through difficult times often come out stronger than before.  It’s time for you to step up and lead!

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