Leadership in Times of Uncertainty

Where are we really headed?

Nobody saw the lockdowns coming: the deep impact on the economy, on businesses, on lives of people across the spectrum. Not that anybody is to blame for not seeing this. It’s not really easy to predict the future accurately. Anchors and their impact on estimates; biases like status quo, availability heuristic; and the difficulty with being a contrarian in the room instead of supporting consensus-building generally make the quality of predictions poor. Doing a root cause analysis on why we were not able to predict accurately isn’t going to help because even after the analysis, there’s no guarantee we will be able to predict the next catastrophe with any degree of acceptable confidence. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that a lack of certainty triggers a threat response in most of us. As leaders, we need to embrace this and help people feel assured. Transformational Leadership is an effective approach to leadership in such times.

Here are a few things transformational leaders do differently.

A vision for the future

When are we going back to work? When will the government unlock everything? When will economic activities go back to pre-COVID levels? The short answer to most of these is  – “we don’t know… yet.” And there’s no point in rushing into it. Novak Djokovich chose to ignore the signals and decided to return to the pre-CoVid era a bit too soon. Outcome: He reported Covid-19 positive with a string of other players that joined him in his endeavour. We don’t have to beat Djoker up for this; he took a gamble, which didn’t work out. He has an appetite for taking risks. At the same time, transformational leaders have started envisioning a future and taking their organizations in a new direction. A “high touch” business, like restaurants, is going to suffer badly until we return to pre-COVID circumstances (if we do at all, that is). Instead of shuttering down, their leaders are looking at the food delivery opportunity and embracing a new business model. Some companies have already made a decision not to return to the pre-COVID environment, have given up office spaces and have committed to a distributed team that may come together once in a while in small or large groups for events, like a planning meeting or an offsite. This is also opening up opportunities for businesses to hire from places they would otherwise have never gone to and also be able to hire diverse talent, like people with disability in a bigger proportion. And sometimes, in such times, Transformational Leaders help people stay anchored on the long term vision that may feel threatened by the new changes. When Facebook hit 500 mil people for the first time, I remember the conversation that started–This is it. What next? Should we become a gaming company now or get into e-commerce or become a bank? And the thing that Zuck said was: we know how to do one thing well–connect people. Let’s double down on that and let others do things they know better than us. Transformational Leaders can inspire through their vision.

Leadership through followership

A transformational leader builds a vision in partnership with the teams. It’s not top-down; it’s collaborative and participative. They listen to colleagues, stay open to varying viewpoints and develop a vision that is well informed. To deliver against the vision, they take the approach of empowering and enabling their team members. They inspire and energize the teams through the vision and then make sure they are set up for success. They invest time in understanding the people they work with, their development, make sure that the journey towards the vision is a growth journey for people they are taking along. They empower their people so they can innovate. Like we used to say at Google: don’t throw bodies at problems. Transformational Leaders inspire team members to find unconventional solutions. They lead through their people. Facebook’s Carolyn Everson signed her messages to her teams “Your biggest fan”. She championed the philosophy of work-life integration as you cannot draw a line between your work self and personal self. This is more true now than ever before. Everson, therefore, also advocated working with team members to ensure their holistic well being. Transformational Leaders embrace leading through their teams.

Team before self

We do not seem to be wired to give up self-interest for the collective good. But we can when inspired. Times of uncertainty have always seen leaders appeal to people to de-prioritize their individual goals and focus on the collective interest. Transformational leaders connect each individual to the vision and the team mission. They help individuals understand why they should join hands and focus on delivering against the goal of the team and the company and not worry about scoring points for themselves. Chamath Palihapitiya, ex Growth VP at Facebook, used to say this in his talks at new hire orientations: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” That’s that. Leaders make it clear and believable for teams that if they achieve the org goal, their individual goals will also be met. That’s the same things Sheryl Sandberg alludes to when she says, “When you have a seat on a rocket ship, don’t worry about which seat you have.”

How are you leading your teams?

  • It might help to do a quick check on how you are doing as a transformational leader. Here are a couple of pointers to help you think this through:
  • Do you have a vision for the new normal?
  • Have you shared it with your team? Have they contributed to it?
  • How are you empowering your teams to find ways to deliver against the vision? How are you pushing for innovation?
  • Are you engaging people using their unique strengths? Will your people grow through this journey in a way meaningful for them?
  • How are you helping people place their team before self? How are you helping them strike a balance between individual and team goals?
  • How are you role-modelling the new behaviours that your vision needs at this time? How are you holding yourself accountable for leading by example?



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