Real Leaders

4 Tips for Leading During Uncertainty

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I’ve worked with CEOs, Fortune 500 executives, social entrepreneurs, and other leaders worldwide to unlock their leadership potential. In these times, one leadership skill is needed more than ever, and that’s the capacity to navigate uncertainty.

This past year has been a real test even for those of us who are comfortable with change. In many sectors, from hospitality to education, the global pandemic caused an epic shake-up no one could ever have imagined.

At a personal level, many of us faced ups and downs, with restrictions on how we gather, new financial and job pressures, and worries about our health and that of loved ones. This past year, I faced a terrifying battle with long COVID that completely upended life as I knew it, and it reminded me once again why it’s vital for all of us to build our inner capacity to navigate uncertainty and volatility. 

The reality is that while our lives may eventually stabilize a bit, uncertainty will always be present in our ever-changing world. So here are four tips that can help you navigate it powerfully:

1. Normalize uncertainty. It’s not our circumstances that destroy us; it’s our resistance to them. In a world changing by the day, we have to accept that we can’t control everything. And that’s hard because so many of us are wired to want total control! But the more we try to control it all, the less “in control” we feel.

As I work with leaders to accept that some things will be out of their control, they often share how liberating it is to let go of this silent burden, the dead weight that’s been sapping their energy. Normalizing uncertainty gives leaders the freedom to focus on things in their control instead

2. Develop grounding practices. Many studies show that our decision-making can be impaired when we’re under stress as two of our body’s hormones, cortisol, and dopamine, hinder executive control functions in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. So if you need to make centered decisions in volatile times, shedding stress and getting grounded is critical.

One grounding practice I started this year is a daily evening walk in the park, which gives me space to decompress from the day and approach the next day with clarity and intentionality. Your grounding practice could include a short morning meditation, a one-minute pause between meetings to clear your mind of clutter from the last meeting, or a regular video chat with a colleague or coach to work through stress.

Whatever practice you choose, it’s important to recognize that your internal mental state is deeply linked to performance, so cultivating this capacity is not just a nice-to-have but a must-have if you wish to lead powerfully.

3. Embrace polarities. In times of stress, we often resort to “either-or” thinking when we should be embracing “and” thinking.

For instance, in an unpredictable business environment, rather than being frugal or revolutionary, smart leaders might decide to cut back on costs in some areas and invest in new opportunities in other areas.

This type of thinking can be helpful in our personal lives as well. For example, after hearing from numerous doctors that “so much is still unknown about long COVID,” I had to learn to embrace two seemingly competing ideas: find acceptance for my chronic health issues in the short term and continue to be optimistic in my search for a cure in the long term.

4. Widen your lens. When confronted with unpredictability, we need to expand our thinking to see what we might be missing. One way to widen your perspective is to surround yourself with people from diverse socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds and those who bring cross-industry experience or other forms of divergent thinking.

For example, in my current workplace at Teach For All, we have explicit hiring criteria around diversity because we recognize it makes our decisions and solutions stronger. Other ways to widen your lens include joining external networks, where you can get exposure to new perspectives, and building a diverse, personal board of advisors whom you can reach out to for counsel.

Looking at situations from a new vantage point may help you see new possibilities that weren’t visible before. This matters particularly in uncertain times and when dealing with complex problems where no one person could hold the entire answer. 

You can’t control everything around you, but you can choose how you respond in every moment. If you embrace uncertainty with curiosity and creativity, you might not only survive in this rapidly changing world—you may find ways to thrive in it.

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