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Leadership confidence in times of uncertainty

May 19, 2020
By Keith Lawrence and Dave Ulrich

Photo: Getty Images

Unparalleled stock market swings (mostly downward); travel bans between US and Asia and Europe; University classes only online; cancellation of all large events (including NBA season, industry conferences, group meetings, and so forth); industry havoc (for industries like travel, entertainment, and education); and at home social distancing.

The Coronavirus, in a matter of weeks (with daily updates), has changed the world. With others, we are most concerned about health and safety, and we mourn with those who mourn for lost or isolated loved ones.

Without parallel, the world we live in today faces unprecedented challenges in virtually every dimension of life—economic, environmental, and cultural to name a few. This crisis captures the new reality that we must face and requires leaders to elevate their roles to offer confidence to others in these times of uncertainty.

In our work, we have found that leaders who make a difference navigate the inherent paradoxes which become even more apparent in times of crisis:

  • Avoid the extremes of either over-reacting or under-reacting, or as a thoughtful sage once said, “run with patience”
  • Care for both the individual and the organization (the recent profit through people and purpose statement by the US Business Roundtable becomes even more prescient).
  • Balance the need for decisive action (be bold) and the need for thoughtful value-based decisions (be calm)
  • Respond to the short term challenges of the moment and anticipate and plan for the long term implications

Without being cavalier, we have learned from other crises that  “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste”   Crises become defining moments for leaders who inspire confidence, offer support, and set new norms for how to think, act, and feel in organizations.

The following principles can guide what critical actions leaders might take to turn the crisis into an opportunity.

  1. Rely on your values – remind yourself what you value most in a crisis. It is said that people “swear in their native language.” Recognize your core values (native language) and rely on them. Let others experience what you value the most. Talk about principles that outlast daily events. Share your emotions that come from your values.  Connect with others in a more personal way.  Learn from pioneers who faced enormous uncertainty and who focused on a direction (based on their values) more than a specific destination.
  2. Be in Touch—get externally focused and outward-facing. Routinely connect (ideally in person) with all your stakeholders (customers, investors, suppliers, employees, and communities) to learn their current reality, honestly communicate status, acknowledge and address issues, etc. Be visible and transparent. In particular, take care of your people and they will, in turn, take care of your organization. Drive clarity in the midst of confusion. Look for the unexpected-best and worst-case scenarios. Balance realism and optimism. Reduce the fear of the future and focus people’s nervous energy into productive action. Distinguish what you can and can’t control. Use every opportunity to build confidence in tomorrow and galvanize the organization.
  3. Play to Your Strengths—confirm what drives success for the firm (your strategy, values, and competencies) and use them as anchors. Preserve them. Make decisions consistent with leveraging the unique capabilities you have. Build on your strengths to strengthen others. Also, be clear on your vulnerabilities and how to minimize any risks.
  4. Operate with Excellence—brilliantly deliver better value to your customers by managing the fundamentals: clear goals/measures, crisp priorities/plans, rigorous enrollment management, managing performance, etc. Make tough calls boldly. Ensure integrity in all you do-no exceptions.
  5. Invest in the Future—seize new opportunities and continue to fund key initiatives (new plants, products, joint ventures, training, etc.) that are critical to building market share and sustaining future growth. Play to win long term.
  6. Simplify—rethink creatively every aspect of your business (number of products, multiple systems, complex structures, excessive compensation, and benefits, etc.) to not only reduce costs but free up valuable time and energy and enable people to do more exciting, fulfilling work. Break the rules-as well as make some new ones.
  7. Take Care of Yourself and Others—these are trying times, with lots of stress and demands. Leaders must be physically and emotionally prepared in order to confidently and calmly lead their organizations. Invest the time for proper “care and feeding” and allow others to do the same. Strengthen your skills of managing change, agility, handling stress. Celebrate your successes. How you treat people in times like these is what will be remembered for generations to come.

We are sure this is only a beginning list of how leaders instill confidence in the face of uncertainty.  What would you add?

By Keith Lawrence • Founder and President, Sustaining Success • Keithlawrence2@gmail.com and Dave Ulrich • Rensis Likert Professor, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan • Partner, The RBL Group • dou@umich.edu

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