Posted by Catherine Hedden ● June 23, 2020

Thrive In Uncertainty: The Key To Leadership Success During Times Of Change

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You reduced expenses, paused projects and deferred everything possible. It’s as if there was a big red “stop” button and you hit it hard. You had to. It was the only way to survive. You know things can’t stay like this much longer, but you feel caught betwixt and between. On one hand, you feel a strong urge to just get things back to normal—to the way they were—but something in your gut is screaming to you, “hey… maybe there is a better way.”


Leading in Times of Uncertainty

2020 has been a year of relentless uncertainty, serving leaders with one of the most critical moments of their career. How they lead through the next 18-24  months could set their organizations on a path to greater organizational performance and stronger stakeholder value, or create a situation of workforce resentment, anger and disconnection that could cost them everything.

This is the place where leadership legends are made. The tools of the legends will be compassion, clarity, transparency and accountability.

Those who lead with fear, insist on getting “back to normal”, or say that simply working harder will improve the situation will likely find their organizations struggling to meet performance expectations. Or, worse yet, becoming the latest corporate “love to hate” target on social media as their profit-first attitude and  misalignment between organization values and delivery becomes transparent. 

“If you want to predict the future, create it.”
Peter Drucker 

Leading from Fear vs. Possibility

Blog Post Scenario Illustrations-01 Blog Post Scenario Illustrations-02

The Opportunity

There is a call for employees to “get back to work” and “get the economy going again.” And, while we all agree we want a strong economy and work that allows us to support our families, the notion of getting back to things as they were seems impossible.

People have been through a traumatic experience, and they are not the same. The way they show up and contribute will be affected. What they need and what they can provide has changed. And the way they are reintegrated and managed over the next 18-24 months will leave them with a deeply felt sense of whether they belong or not, whether the work they perform is valued or not and whether they feel a sense of fulfillment through their work, or not. 

Every disruption is about death and rebirth, things we need to let go and things that are about to emerge. People are already experiencing this as an awakening of sorts.. Suddenly, we can work from home. And, at least 50% of the meetings we thought were critical weren’t necessary. Also, extended time with family may have ignited a desire for reduced work hours.

If we let go of everything nonessential, what’s left?

What has died for each individual and what longs to be birthed is deeply personal. However, this time of reflection, letting go and emergence can be harnessed to inspire innovative organizational change that can supercharge organization performance.

If we examine the transformation model developed by MIT Senior Lecturer, Otto Scharmer, Theory U, we can gain a deeper understanding of the importance of this moment. 

Scharmer calls the “U,” or bottom part of the in the figure above, “Leading from the Emerging Future.” According to Scharmer, the first step in any transformation is to stop the “downloading” patterns from the past. This is the notion of stopping doing things the way we’ve always done them, whether we have the outcome intended or not. Downloading brings us conditions such as siloed decision making, unproductive “turf” wars, and disjointed, inconsistent client experiences. When we stop downloading, we create space for change. The COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing, and the resulting economic challenges have ushered in a form of “forced downloading.” We have already taken step one.

The second step is “waking up.” Waking up to the choice that each leader must make—how will you lead through this moment? According to Scharmer,

“You can respond by turning away, or by turning toward. Turning away means closing your mind, heart, and will — in other words, acting from ignorance, hate, and fear. Turning toward means opening your mind, heart, and will — acting from curiosity, compassion, and courage.”

This is where we are now.

Leaders who turn away and lead from fear (pictured above in Scenario 1) will quickly bring employees back, send an inspirational email, perhaps with a video of the CEO, welcoming back the team, declaring victory and encouraging them to work harder for the sake of the economy and the company. And, while this may get things going again, it will not usher in the type of transformation that will align the organization to provide value to all stakeholders. It will leave the workers feeling unseen, devalued and disconnected. The opportunity for true innovation and transformation will be lost.

Leaders who turn toward (Scenario 2 in the above graphic) and act from curiosity, compassion and courage will recognize the importance of a thoughtful employee experience during this time of uncertainty. They will listen and engage workers in the process of letting go of the past and reimagining a new future. 

Harnessing the Opportunity

To harness the opportunity that is available and successfully navigate this volatile and uncertain time, we suggest the following key steps which comprise our Thrive in Uncertainty program.

Strategic Clarity from the Core

Check relevance, alignment and cohesiveness of the organization’s core (identity narrative, image, culture and vision) and from there determine where and when to stay the course or change direction.

Take Care of Your People

Ask how they’re doing. Listen. Acknowledge the uncertainty. Make sure they feel safe. Lean into your organization’s core in order to inspire, provide a sense of purpose and belonging, and instill confidence.

Optimize Team Performance

When the future is unclear, you can keep your teams focused and productive by operating in small teams, with sprints, and embracing short-term strategies.

Drive Engagement and Revenue

Create opportunities for compassion and empathy, provide relief for stakeholders where possible and build a more rapid-response marketing operation to ensure marketing and sales messages are contextually appropriate and relevant.

Scout the Course Ahead

Periodically assess the external operating environment, workers and key stakeholders to identify opportunities, adjust priorities, share learning, celebrate successes and ensure continued return on reputation.  

Next Steps

Our Thrive in Uncertainty program was created to help you take advantage of the opportunity that is available to your organization during times volatility and uncertainty. For more information, visit the FAQ page.


What kind of leader will you be? 

Topics: News, Change Management, Culture, Coronavirus, Organization Development, Leadership