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Leading in Uncertain Times

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, corporate leaders in many sectors faced the prospect of a looming recession. Some industries, such as manufacturing, were already seeing decelerating earnings. Then COVID-19 struck, and within weeks, businesses worldwide ground to a halt. Companies shut down, people stayed in, and without a vaccine, there was no consensus from the scientific, medical or business communities as to what would or should happen next.

As the pandemic spread across the globe, the need for leadership at every level of society has never been greater. Facing a crisis of this scale, how can business leaders prevent employees from overreacting to the relentlessly bad news? How do they provide steady guidance so workers can look ahead and focus on what they can individually control?

Recognize and Mobilize

Unskilled leaders often minimize troubles in order to calm a workforce. In a sealed world without access to information (North Korea), this might work. But in an open environment characterized by information overload, leaders must frame the problem accurately as it reflects the challenges of the business. They cannot seem out of touch with reality, lest they lose their employees' confidence. Giving short shrift to the uncertainty with phrases like "put this behind us" or "get back to work" is counterproductive.

Leaders must communicate realistically about the scope of their knowledge in order to build credibility with their constituents. They must collaborate with the executive team and outside experts to understand all of the business's opportunities and risks, and then they must mobilize by setting clear priorities for response. The next step is implementing networks of teams assembled to deal with the current crisis.

Providing purpose empowers individual employees at each level of the organization to implement solutions that meet agreed-upon priorities. Confidence in a plan is possible even when uncertainty remains. Even though some elements will always be beyond a business leader's control, employees feel confident when they're working with consensus and cohesion.

"A CEO's responsibility is to confront the reality of the situation and communicate a direction," CEO Valerie Freeman of the staffing firm Imprimis Group says of this critical first step. "Act for the 'now' and plan for the future. A CEO must be both highly visible and accessible to employees and a variety of constituents, from shareholders to stakeholders to the media."

Frame the Fear and Encourage Courage

Kathy Leonard, president of the staffing firm Freeman+Leonard, advises, "Uncertainty is a lurking cloud in everyone's mind. 'When will this end, [and] what will life be like then?' A strong leader will acknowledge fear and will frame it as valid, yet not debilitating."

A strong leader converts fear to hope and, ultimately, to courage. It's possible to inspire hope by acknowledging employees' hard work and team or individual achievements. Gratitude and the sharing of stories on overcoming adversity in comparable situations can also play a role.

Providing enough information and inspiration to know that a problem is not insurmountable develops courage in a workforce. During a crisis, leaders can be more human. Freeman: "Leaders should communicate a belief that the company will make it through the present difficulties. They must also exercise compassion and empathy as employees are frightened and looking for direction from leadership."

She adds, "Ensuring that our people have the courage to face today with positive energy, a good attitude and a formulated plan is of utmost importance. It takes courage to 'carry on' as the Brits might say. We must all carry on, not as if nothing has happened, but as if everything is changing. As leaders we must stay connected, listen carefully to our frontline people and encourage the massive effort it takes to face each day with renewed energy."

Praise the Pivots

Leonard says leaders should be able to pivot on a dime in a crisis. These pivots may later come to define the character of the organization. "What worked two months ago may not work today, and in fact, may not work in the future. Leaders must be adaptable and able to see through the uncertainty to find a new approach. The 'pivot' may be a new and different product, service platform or novel offer. Solutions that provide customers with long-term benefits — especially as it relates to the crisis — can help to steady the business. Most employees will work harder when challenged to pivot. Many will come up with outrageous ideas (and that can provide some needed levity), while some may even offer game-changing ideas. Praise them all! It is the welcome reception of new ideas and ways to pivot from what was to what can be that will redefine the future for everyone in the organization."

This kind of positive leadership resonates throughout an organization. Olga Yurchenko, product portfolio marketing manager for ECI Software Solutions, Inc., calls positivity the critical behavior that corporate leaders should adopt in uncertain times. "This enables leaders at every level to manage uncertainty in a way that doesn't erode our values, but strengthens our empathy for one another and our resolve to overcome challenges together."

Learn more about the UofSC Aiken online MBA program.


McKinsey&Company: Leadership in a Crisis: Responding to the Coronavirus Outbreak and Future Challenges The Importance of Leadership in Uncertain Times

Entrepreneur: 4 Things Employees Want from Leaders During Uncertain Times

Quotes obtained from phone interviews

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