Four Habits for Leading in Uncertain Times


It’s a word you hear a lot these days.

Not knowing what the future holds is a big source of stress for large and small organizations alike — from nonprofits to private firms.

Patrick Harker, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, has declared uncertainty to be the biggest risk to the economy in 2017.

Uncertainty comes from all directions.

  • Is your current job the right fit? What should you do if you don’t like your job?
  • How do you address work performance issues with employees? How do you improve your own performance?
  • Should you hire new workers or wait for more economic data?
  • Do you launch that new product or will consumer habits shift on you?
  • Will policy changes put a dent in your plans?
  • What about the impact of new technology or pop culture trends?

In over 30 years as a CEO or executive, doing business in more than 40 countries, I’ve learned that every age is an age of uncertainty, and that good leadership skills include the ability to make good decisions even when you can’t see the road ahead very clearly.

I’ve also learned that practically every situation you face, no matter how dire it seems, offers opportunities for personal and professional growth — for you and all of your stakeholders.

Today I’d like to share four interconnected habits that will help you and your organization to be more successful, even in today’s unpredictable business environment.

Habit #1: Lead with Empathy

We really are all in this together.

Back when I was leading the international division of Enactus, I had the pleasure of working with lots of kind and brilliant people from a broad array of cultures from around the world. And underneath all the supposed differences we obsess over so much of the time, most people really are basically the same.

Most folks really do just want to take care of their kids, earn a decent living, and have a little fun. Everyone is trying to get by, and hopefully thrive, regardless of where they live, their religious beliefs, or what they do for a living.

As a leader, you can’t just focus on your own desires when making decisions. You have to consider everyone else. Your customers. Your workers. Your community.

What are their hopes and dreams? What do they worry about? How will your actions affect them?

That’s what it means to lead with empathy.

Habit #2: Listening Is Your Most Important Communication Skill

That brings me to my second habit of leading through uncertain times.

You may be the world’s preeminent authority in your area of expertise.

But no matter what industry you’re in, relationships will always be your most valuable resource. Communication is the most important means of cultivating those relationships. And the most important communication skill is listening.

As the chair of our local Vistage peer advisory group here in Springfield, Missouri, I’ve picked up countless insights from members and guest speakers who share their own unique experiences across different industries.

Why is listening so important?

Well, for one thing, it’s hard to master the first habit — lead with empathy — without listening to all those other people you need to think about when making decisions.

The second reason is that everybody knows something and nobody knows everything. A few years ago, Bill Nye the Science Guy delivered the following advice during a commencement address:

Everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don’t…Respect their knowledge and learn from them. It will bring out the best in all of you.

You need to draw on the insights and experiences of others around you.

Listening helps you build empathy, and it also helps you learn.

Habit #3: Adopt a Learning Mindset

Speaking of commencements, if you thought your education was over the day you got that diploma, think again.

Let’s say you’ve just inherited the company from Grandpa. Naturally, you’re wondering whether you’ll be a good leader, or if you’re prepared for all the curveballs that will come your way.

But guess what? Even if you’re still at the helm 30 years from now, the world will still be changing all around you. That means you’ll have just as much to learn as a seasoned veteran as you did as a newly minted CEO.

Business psychologist and leadership expert Stuart Duff points out that uncertainty breeds anxiety, which hurts decision-making ability. By seeking out different perspectives and new knowledge, we can balance those emotional responses with more rational thinking, which leads to better decisions.

You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by rediscovering a sense curiosity about the world that seems to come naturally to kids but is too often forgotten by us grownups.

Now more than ever, you’ve got to be open to picking up new skills — whether it’s figuring out a new gadget, learning a second language, or studying how some hot button issue affects people from different walks of life.

Learning can come from a lot of sources — including colleagues, employees, customers, or family members. Other executives benefit from leadership coaches or from talking to fellow executives in peer advisory groups such as Vistage.

Habit #4: Adapt to Succeed

I think, in many ways, as it turned out, my entire life up to that moment had been a preparation to handle that particular moment.

That’s how Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger described his heroic Miracle on the Hudson plane landing that saved 155 lives, in an interview with 60 Minutes on CBS.

The fact is, if you serve in any kind of leadership role for any length of time, you’ll soon learn that a crisis can appear out of nowhere. In those situations, you must have the agility to help your people through unexpected events.

  • What do you do if you just lost your biggest customer?
  • What if the main product you manufacture becomes obsolete because of technology?
  • What if you suddenly lost your spouse?

Back when I was serving as President of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, one of the world’s largest zoological organizations, we had to launch an emergency fundraising campaign on very short notice.

One of our elephants had died from natural causes, and some animal rights organizations incorrectly accused the zoo of “killing elephants.” Because of the unexpected negative publicity, the zoo suddenly needed to raise enough money to replace about 3-4 months of lost revenue for the Zoo Association from memberships and concessions.

To launch the campaign, I reached out to legendary actress Betty White, who was kind enough to pledge the first $100,000. Her support was instrumental in attracting other donors, which helped to make the campaign a success.

The moral of the story is that leadership in crisis situations requires adaptability — in other words, the ability to pull your team together, make some quick decisions, and implement a plan of action, with little or no advance warning.

Are you looking for resources for successfully navigating towards an uncertain future? Contact us at Global Advisory Associates. We’re here to help you achieve your goals as you meet the challenges that face your organization.

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