Leading through uncertainty


In times of disruption, leaders can help us focus on what matters most.


Even the best laid plans…


Conventional models of leadership tend to emphasise the importance of ‘vision’ – the leader looks ahead, sets the direction and makes the plan for how to get there. It is a highly rational model, which is usually conceptualised as a linear process, moving through the stages of setting objectives, planning, implementing and evaluating success.


Yet, as we have all experienced in 2020, disruption and volatility can lay waste to even the most detailed strategic plan. As we’ve seen in the case of AirBnB, even organisations who thrive on ‘disruption’ can be disrupted themselves by the unpredictability of global events. Where once we talked in the abstract about the ‘VUCA’ (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, we are now experiencing it in a very real way with the COVID-19 pandemic.


What are leaders to do when the strategic plan goes out the window? How can we best lead others through times of great upheaval and uncertainty?


 Holding to what matters


We have seen how the experience of uncertainty can disrupt ‘business as usual’, and cause us to re-evaluate what is actually important to us – as organisations, communities and individuals.


In a piece for the Harvard Business Review, organisational expert Gianpiero Petriglieri challenges the over-emphasis on vision in leadership models, pointing to its irrelevance in crisis situations. Instead, he argues, the key role of the leader needs to shift to one of ‘holding’ – that is, ‘containing’ and ‘interpreting’ uncertain events, which creates space for others to focus on what matters most.


It is human nature that in a crisis, we tend towards panic, anxiety, and even anger. When leaders prioritise ‘holding’, they reduce the cognitive and emotional impact of uncertainty. Ironically, by narrowing the vision of the organisation for a period of time, they give permission for people to focus on the present.


Making space for growth


While it can be instinctive for leaders to act (and react) in response to events, it can sometimes be more powerful to limit ‘top-down’ actions, and instead make space for individuals to adapt and grow.


Tracing the psychological basis of the idea of ‘holding’, Petriglieri cites the work of David Winnicott on the conditions for healthy growth and flourishing in children. Winnicott’s research found that when parents created space for emerging independence – being present but not imposing, responsive but not reactive – they nurtured children with a strong sense of agency and self awareness.


Indeed, we know that the same is true in organisational contexts – autonomy and agency are essential in building capacity as well as in fostering intrinsic motivation. When leaders create the conditions for individuals to make and reflect on decisions, they not only feel a sense of control over their work which is central to resilience, but they also develop their capacity to problem-solve in the face of challenging situations.


From surviving to thriving?


While the recent pandemic may be considered an ‘extraordinary’ event, it has exposed the inherent fragility of a world that is increasingly interconnected – uncertainty, it would seem, is the only certainty.


To navigate this world, we will need leaders who can not only look to the future, but also be with us in the present. By acknowledging uncertainty, re-focusing our attention on what matters, and ‘holding’ space for growth, we just might emerge from this crisis more resilient, adaptive and creative.