Leading in uncertain times: Transforming fear to action

THE inescapable reality of the Covid-19 threat and the resultant uncertainty it has caused in our social, business and corporate life calls for a unique crop of leaders who can inspire confidence in their teams.

Robert Mandeya

It is nearly impossible to escape from the unending stream of global unrest, and yet, in extraordinary times people turn to their leaders for guidance and reassurance more than ever before. The growing pessimism about the future among people in and out of workplaces has seriously eroded trust t in the institutions that were once the source of pride and security for many.

Complex role of CEOs in this time

More than ever before, CEOs are expected to take the lead on change rather than wait for government to impose it on them. It is critically important for the CEOs to respond to challenging times proactively.

However, not all CEOs are prepared to meet this new set of expectations — and that is something that ought to keep boards up at night. If your company’s top leader is ill-prepared to meet new expectations in this new, uncertain climate, all eyes will be on the board, and on the oversight it did or did not provide. The four key action words to help CEOs think of his or her role in leading people during times of uncertainty are; inform, connect, guide and unite.

Inform

As people struggle to make sense of the evolving uncertainty around them and what it means for them and their employer, they are particularly hungry for information and analysis. For this reason, you may find that they are more open to frequent and ongoing communication efforts.

Authenticity is of primary importance here. Leaders must candidly acknowledge the downsides and the unknowns the company is facing. This will create credibility when painting a picture of their organisation’s strengths and encouraging people to focus on the solid fundamentals.

Most importantly, it is the leader’s job to help people make sense of the changing conditions, anticipate the likely scenarios ahead, and give them the tools to help them make up their own minds about how to best deal with these situations.

During this period, CEOs are encouraged to communicate early and frequently. The risk of over communicating is far less important than the risk of appearing out of touch with the current reality. Embrace humility and tell the truth; overpromising is only likely to backfire.

Connect

Given the uncertainty, it is important for CEOs to generate a feeling of trust with employees. This will not happen if their communication appears remote or artificial. People need to feel a personal presence and connection. Senior executives who reach out to their employees and foster warmth and support will be seen as a credible source of reassurance and information.

One way to do this is for leaders to acknowledge that they, too, are affected by the uncertainty in the world. Admitting is not a sign of weakness but shows that they are concerned about others.

In times of uncertainty and unprecedented changes, it is important to give people opportunities to safely express their emotions. Reach out to employees on a personal basis. Get out of your office and encourage others to do the same. News of this will spread and positively affect the overall culture.

Guide

More than at any other time, during periods of uncertainty, people want leaders who can give direction on what needs to be done and what should not be done. However, inconsiderate or premature calls to “put this behind us” and “get back to work” will be counter-productive.

Talking about the long-term vision and strategies of the company will not be effective when people are bracing for further bad news, or emotionally recovering from previous disclosures. The CEO may find it beneficial to start with more basic elements. The first step is to provide clear guidance on the business’s priorities that everyone can rally around and contribute to.

As these concerns are being addressed, the CEO should invite people to think of the unique skills and qualities that have kept them in business with their internal or external customers. How can they leverage those and make a difference to others who are dealing with the same issues?
For instance, give steady guidance. Focus on the concrete steps on which all employees can align. Empower them to be part of the solution within that framework. Patiently hammer your message — its stability may be as important as its content.

Unite

Turbulent times remind us of the importance of human community. People value it and increasingly see their place of employment as a valid arena to experience that connection. They need to rally behind those things that bind them together. Leaders can pull their employees closer to the company by reinforcing what makes them a unique group.

Chief executives can help crystallise these feelings to energise a group toward joint action. You may find that actively dealing with adversity will actually enhance a sense of togetherness and resilience as a community. The leader who taps into aspects of who people are and how they function sends a strong message in times of uncertainty: “What we are doing now validates what we’ve always done; we can adapt to change and still be true to who we are.”

The combination of uncertain times and the trust that people place in their employer presents a unique opportunity to reimagine the CEO’s potential for influence to include not only the purely transactional role of management, but also the more personally engaged role of leadership. Those who do so will reap the rewards of a loyal group of people committed to the success of their company and connected to the world around them.

Mandeya is a certified executive leadership coach, corporate education trainer and management consultant and founder of Leadership Institute of Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw/ or info@lird.co.zw, Facebook: @lirdzim and Mobile/WhatsApp: +263 719 466 925