Leading Through Uncertainty: Seven principles for practice

Many leaders are currently facing the challenge of leading in conditions of great uncertainty in an unpredictable environment. Yet much leadership and change guidance is predicated on the assumption of a relatively stable or foreseeable future – for which plans can be made. Here are some principles to help leaders continue to offer leadership even when firm predictions are hard to come by and plans are difficult to make.


1. Keep Leading

When researching his book ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ Atul Gawande turned to the airline industry for case-studies on how to prepare emergency checklists. He discovered that these pioneers in the creation of a checklist for every scenario had quickly learnt that the first instruction on every list had to be ‘keep flying the plane’. Similarly, all may be in turmoil about you, but ‘keep offering leadership’ has to be at the top of your checklist.


2. People First

When thing are running smoothly people issues can seem to be looking after themselves and leaders often devote their energies to more of the task aspects of the role. Once uncertainty and unpredictability become a key part of the picture – are we being sold? Will there be redundancies? Is our line/factory/project being discontinued? – all this changes and working with your people must become the main focus of the leadership role. Essentially all managers have to become leaders, able to inspire loyalty, trust and courage. This may not come easy to those promoted on their technical skills. They need support to understand that spending time with people to help them remain motivated, optimistic and performing is now the key aspect of their job.


3. Engender Hope and Optimism

One of the first causalities when uncertainty looms large is hope. People can’t see the future clearly; they don’t understand how they can influence it. They feel hopeless in the face of bigger circumstances.  A collapse in motivation and morale can quickly follow. Creating a sense of hope and optimism is a key factor in restoring motivation and so levels of productivity. Appreciative Inquiry as a change methodology is particularly effective at this. The general principle is to help people, in the midst of all the gloom and despair, to focus on what is good, is still working, is worthwhile, and on what they can influence. Help them be proactive in dealing with, coping with, responding to or interacting with the situation. These things engender hopefulness.


4. Learn to Love Emergence and Discovery

Many change approaches rely on analysis and implementation through planning. This approach is too slow, too inaccurate and too prone to be rendered obsolete by a sudden shift in the wind in conditions of great uncertainty. Instead we have to become experts at sensing small shifts, capturing emerging trends, discovering ways forward by trying things out and seeing what happens. We have to engage pro-actively with an emerging future. Working this way can initially feel messy, inefficient, and worryingly uncontrollable. By the same token it is timely, fast, flexible, engaging and involving and can lead to surprising discoveries about the possible. Appreciative Inquiry and the other collaborative transformational approaches such as Open Space and World Café are good approaches for emergent situations.


5. Call on the Collective Intelligence of Your Unit

When things are changing fast and new information is constantly emerging it is impossible for one person, or even a small group of senior people, to keep on top of it all, never mind sorting it, sifting it and creating new possibilities for action. The collaborative transformational technologies allow the collective intelligence of the whole unit to work together in an effective way. Involving others adds value and effectiveness to the process. It greatly increases the likelihood of creative, collectively endorsed ways forward emerging. Involve your people in the challenge. Recognise them as intelligent adults and reap the rewards of a huge increase in brain-power on the task. Make finding ways forward and staying pro-active everyone’s challenge.


6. Have Many Review and Reflection Points

As situations constantly change so must our plans. Learning from fire-fighters Weick suggests a shift is necessary in highly uncertain situations from decision-making to sense-making. Leadership behaviour in these highly changeable situations is characterised by ambivalence, an ability to move quickly between seemingly contrasting states - such as taking risks and being cautious, using repetition and improvisation, or working with intuition and deliberation. In addition, proceeding by trial and error, they assess and reassess the appropriateness of their actions frequently, involving others as well to ‘calibrate’ their sense of the situation and the appropriate action against the insight of others. Constant adaptation of plans is adaptive in these situations.


7. Reveal Your Authenticity and Integrity

In unpredictable and uncertain situations it is easy to be blown off course by the temporary prevailing wind. Good people can find themselves doing bad things when they lose their bearings. Research by Avolio and colleagues identified four key features of authentic leadership, one of which is having a strong internal moral compass. Make sure you consult yours often. Another is what they term ‘relational transparency’, by which they mean allowing people to know you, the real and true you. This may mean sometimes letting people know that you too are only human and sometimes falter or feel vulnerable, as well as sometimes feeling strong and certain. This is not licence to collapse all over your team in a heap – get a coach for that – but rather, as Goffee and Jones put it ‘to be your (best) self, more, with skill.’ Over time it builds trust and increases group capability as others step up to the mark to help.


Offering leadership during times of uncertainty is no easy task. It requires a different understanding of leadership and different leadership behaviours. Finding ways forward in a rapidly changing environment that will enable the organization to continue to flourish is too big a demand on any one individual. There is too much information, too many variables. However Open Space, World Café and Appreciative Inquiry all offer ways to call on the collective intelligence of the unit while still adding value from the unique position of ‘leader’.


More on these and related topics can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more articles from the Knowledge Warehouse on this topic here.


Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more by looking at the tools we use to foster Leadership.

For further information on these alternative approaches to change, please contact us or phone 07973 782 715