Leadership in times of uncertainty

3 minute read

Uncertain times - horizontal

There’s an old saying:

  • When you’re running a business in good times, have a plan.
  • When you’re running a business in bad times, have a simple plan.

There’s no simple recipe for success, but what are the best CEOs doing differently as they lead their organisations through turbulence?  Fellow leadership specialists, RHR International, share their thoughts on leadership in times of uncertainty.


Abandon strategic planning for now

Many CEOs have switched to scenario planning as their key analytical tool, e.g., what happens if our revenue drops 10%, or 20%, or 30%? Developing multiple hypothetical situations along with carefully thought out contingency plans for each outcome prevents a mad scramble (with its accompanying risks) if the worst happens.


Rely on the senior team

Clients say this is essential. CEOs need the benefit of the best thinking from those around the table. It’s not the time for power games, stonewalling, or opting out. Senior team members must both support each other and hold themselves mutually to task. As never before, the success of the company is one of shared accountability across the entire senior team, regardless of role.


Respond to employees’ needs

RHR has defined four key concepts when leading people during times of uncertainty:

  • Inform: As people struggle to make sense of a new situation, they are particularly hungry for information
           and analysis.
  • Connect: To generate a feeling of trust with employees, people need to feel a highly personal presence and             connection.
  • Guide: People want strong leaders who are comfortable giving direction on what to do and what not to do.
  • Unite: Especially in turbulent times, people value a sense of human community.


For more information about these four key concepts, RHR has published a special white paper entitled, “Leadership in Times of Uncertainty.”


Develop new skills by necessity

With unprecedented demands placed on CEOs, gaps between what has worked for them in the past and what is required today become apparent. Many of the elements listed above will stretch their capabilities. Of note, also, is the need for a balanced thinking and decision style. Those who are highly analytic are confronted with a less predictable world where cold logic is insufficient. Conversely, intuitive thinkers can quickly find themselves and their companies in greater jeopardy without the necessary analytics to support a gut response.


Think about how you’re faring

Self-management under profound stress is not something most CEOs do well. They rely on their drive and stamina to see them through, and generally this is sufficient. But these are unusual times, and a modicum of personal care is called for. As unnatural as it may be for some, we recommend that CEOs engage and reflect. This is not a time for isolation.

Leaders need to reach out for the best thinking of those around them – from their teams, members of their board, customers, outside advisors. Reflection is a rare skill for most hard charging, forward thinking CEOs, but it is an important element of personal pulse-taking that allows for mental shifts and emotional centring. Asking yourself such questions as:

  • What are my choices? How am I responding? What impact am I having?
  • How am I feeling? Is my energy channelled in the most helpful directions?
  • How do I typically respond when under severe stress? How am I reacting now?


Reflection is difficult for most of us without the gentle prodding and support of a trusted advisor. Many CEOs turn to one or two people they can count on – from their board, a fellow CEO, or a valued consultant. These are relationships that encourage the CEO to privately let his or her guard down a bit and to ruminate about what to do next.