Uncertain times can severely reveal the quality of an organisation’s leadership, as it is during these times that great leaders act – decisively. Their actions set an example for everyone in the organisation and stand as the difference between thriving in a crisis and suffering irreparable damage.

In a new report, spearheaded by CEO Clarke Murphy, Russell Reynolds Associates has captured 10 enduring leadership lessons on leading through uncertain times and keeping the organisational ship moving along in such choppy waters.

Lesson 1: Communicate, communicate, and communicate (and then communicate more) 

Uncertainty produces anxiety throughout the workforce and among customers, suppliers and investors. Silence will be interpreted as (very) bad news. It is essential to communicate (and reinforce) a clear perspective on what is happening and what it means for the organisation.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Are your leaders communicating often even when they don’t have all the answers?
  • Do your leaders demonstrate the poise and composure to reassure all stakeholders that the organisation is in safe hands?

Lesson 2: Help others lead

One person alone cannot lead in turbulent times. The best leaders step up at this time and help others lead - they do not retreat behind an understandable level of stress and information overload. Leaders create other leaders are catalysts for widespread change across leadership teams and boards.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Is the next generation of leaders stepping up?
  • Who is choosing to lead in these uncertain times?
  • Is the current leadership asking for help across the organisation?
  • Is the culture of the organisation one that allows people to lead without authority?

Lesson 3: Plan for the long and short term

Great leaders have the ability to devote the appropriate resources to the immediate needs of the organisation while maintaining a focus on long-term strategic goals. In the face of uncertainty, weak leaders are guided primarily by concerns over the “optics” of their decisions; strong leaders are guided by a clear view of the sacrifices required to preserve strategic direction.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Are your leaders balancing short-term, tactical decision making with the long-term goals of the organisation?
  • Are your leaders using data, rather than gut feel alone, to make decisions?
  • Are your leaders considering short-term and long-term opportunities that turbulent times create, as well as managing the risks?

Lesson 4: Focus on core values

Great leaders amplify the organisation’s mission to reassure and galvanise those around them. They identify “culture champions” to set a visible example by reinforcing the culture and values that will guide the organisation through difficult periods. 

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do your leaders know which aspects of your culture will inspire people to overcome difficult situations?
  • Can you identify the ‘culture champions’ in your organisation?
  • How are your leaders communicating the importance of your organisation’s culture and values?

Lesson 5: Engage early, with purpose and humility

Even when under pressure, great leaders engage purposefully with those around them. They create a sense of togetherness by having the humility to listen to a wide range of opinions – not just those from their leadership team – rather than attempting to serve as the universal source of answers.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Are your leaders emotionally aware enough to listen, as well as tell?
  • Does the organisation see the leader as authentic?
  • Who is responsible for looking after your leaders, and what support mechanisms are in place?

Lesson 6: Look outward

A natural reaction to a sudden shock is to withdraw inward. The best leaders actively resist this instinct. They look outward to employees, suppliers, customers, boards and investors, gathering the insight required to enable better decision making. This should be a two-way channel at all levels.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do your current leaders have a network of peers inside and outside the organisation who can share insight?
  • Are your leaders open to new information to help better decision making rather than as a way of gathering power?
  • Does your organisation have a culture of openness that encourages ideas and insight from all levels?

Lesson 7: Create order from chaos

In the early days of a crisis, great leaders cut through the clutter of conflicting data and opinions, identifying the areas that need attention and allocating resources accordingly. They quickly develop and communicate a point of view on the best path forward, instead of being paralysed by indecision.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do your leaders have the ability to cope with complexity?
  • Do your leaders have the flexibility to make quick decisions and communicate them clearly?
  • Can your leaders manage multiple stakeholders inside and outside the organisation proactively?

Lesson 8: Know when to pivot

Great leaders are unsentimental about the strategies and tactics that have led to their success. They know the moment when abandoning what has always worked is less risky than sticking with the playbook. This ability to choose the right time to change tack instils confidence in the organisation.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Are your leaders disposed to action over analysis and information gathering?
  • How do your leaders approach risk?
  • Is your organisation’s culture open and inclusive enough to move and evolve rapidly?

Lesson 9: Exude realistic optimism

Great leaders honestly accept the gravity of challenging situations. They communicate this openly and honestly and are humble enough to admit they don’t have all the answers. Doing so provides them with credibility to share an authentic vision that is both reassuring and realistic.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do your leaders have the confidence to answer questions honestly even when they don’t have all the answers?
  • Are your leaders outwardly optimistic about the organisation’s ability to navigate difficult times?

Lesson 10: Demonstrate grit

Grit is the mental toughness, perseverance and unwavering focus with which great leaders approach challenges. This means seeing tasks through to completion, maintaining the highest performance standards and exuding calm and optimism. They serve as a role model of these qualities.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do your leaders maintain focus and energy even when momentum is lacking in the organisation?
  • Do your leaders maintain high standards regardless of the pressures the individual and organisation are under?
  • Do your leaders inspire confidence in themselves and the organisation?

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