Five Rules for Leading Through Uncertainty March 7 2013

uncertaintyA lot of my clients work in Washington, DC. They’re either executives in Federal agencies or executives in companies that do a lot of business with Federal agencies. Right now, they’re all talking about sequestration – that wonderful process in which Congress mandates across the board budget cuts without any guidance about how to implement those cuts.

You may not be paying a lot of attention to sequestration if you live and work in LA, for example, but to the folks in DC, it’s a big freaking deal. Just about everyone in and around Washington is trying to figure out what to do next. It’s a classic case of leaders having to lead through uncertainty. Even if you’re not dealing with the impact of sequestration, leading through uncertainty is worth thinking about. You may think that everything is crystal clear right now but chances are that’s going to change sooner or later. Probably sooner.

So, since leading through uncertainty is eventually a universal opportunity for leaders, I thought I’d offer five rules for how to do it more effectively. These rules are based on talking with a lot of clients over the past week who are either figuring out how to do it or who are watching in disbelief as their leaders fail at it.

Here, then, are five rules for leading through uncertainty:

1. Share what you know: People crave information when things are uncertain. Share what you know. Focus on the impact. Offer guidelines for decision making.

2. Say what you don’t know: Don’t fake your way through it. Your people have a sixth sense for when you’re doing that. Acknowledge what you don’t know. Call out what’s in your collective control and what’s not.

3. Cut the crap: If you have fifteen minutes worth of useful information, keep the conversation to fifteen minutes. Don’t expand it to an hour and fill up the remaining forty five minutes with platitudes that don’t do anyone any good. Think about it. If you were on the receiving end, how would you react to a lot of meaningless fluff? Your people are going to react the same way you would.

4. Ask for input: Don’t assume you have to make all the decisions yourself. The people who are closest to the action likely have a lot of good ideas about how to move forward. Ask them for their input and ideas.

5. Stay engaged: Don’t assume that one call does it all. Stay engaged with your organization. Keep sharing what you know when you know it and can share it. Keep asking for input. Nature abhors a vacuum and so do organizations. In the absence of clear and relevant communications from you and with you, people are going to fill the vacuum with stuff they’re making up. You don’t want that. Stay engaged.

What other rules work for you when you have to lead through uncertainty?

7 Responses to “Five Rules for Leading Through Uncertainty”

  1. Dallin H. says:

    I completely agree with "Nature abhors a vacuum and so do organizations." If you're not willing to at least be present as a leader during difficult times, people will look to someone else for guidance and it won't be pretty. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Good advice even in less uncertain times.

  3. Good post Scott. Leaders need to be trusted. Particularly in times of uncertainty. I cover this in a recent post here:
    Failure to invoke their trust will lead to failure in the longer term. Invoking their input, and encouraging their buy-in, is also key.

  4. Vaughn Berger says:

    Scott you've made some very strong points…ALL of which hit home. Here in Las Vegas, I am in the middle of a product launch with "50 balls" in the air…and "Staying Engaged" can be the most challenging part. At any given moment those "50 balls" feel like they are dropping at the same time. Thank you for your words of inspiration and encouragement. Vaughn

  5. Ademola says:

    These are good points. Leaders need to think and carry others along in uncertain situation. Do not act alone so that you will not fall.

  6. Victor Ornelas says:

    May I suggest Rule # 6? Be a servant leader. Have and exhibit positive energy. Look for opportunities to be compassionate and seek to understand before being understood. Resist the temptation to communicate and respond to issues through email and have one on one conversations, in person if possible but at least on the phone. The result will be more Win-Win relationships and outcomes.

  7. biikook says:

    Thank you for this rule #6. I totally agree with you. It is as much important to seek to understand your team, as you seek to be understood by the team. Leadership should and must be a shared responsibility between the leader on one hand, and those being led on the other hand.

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