Leadership in Uncertain Times
Leadership in Uncertain Times

Leadership in Uncertain Times

The refining fires of crisis are revealing truths about human precarity and possibility that could be a playbook for “normal” times.

October 29 th 2020
Appears in Fall 2020

Uncertainty reigns. The pandemic and associated economic strife define the era. We face collective questions: What do we value most? What is the connection between health and the economy? Personal questions are ever present too. Should I attend the funeral? Should we send our kids to school? What is my obligation to the common good in this moment? How do I mobilize progress during great uncertainty?

That last question is especially haunting for those trying to lead during this great uncertainty, when our instincts, our go-to behaviours, can fail us. We want to provide answers, but often we aren’t even considering the right questions. Our default is to declare the way forward, but it may be that different experiments testing multiple ways forward is the wiser route.

Leadership is an activity, not a position.

Leadership is often about defining problems and solutions. But how does one do that when even the smallest definitions evade solidity and moral trade-offs are everywhere? For example, is the problem not stockpiling personal protective equipment, or is it that we are relying on ineffective systems of sharing personal protective equipment across organizations and agencies? Is the problem a lack of clear and timely decisions from the federal government, or an overreliance on federal authorities? Solutions are slippery too. The school principal who solves for inequitable technology access by getting laptops and hotspots for every disadvantaged child may quickly discover that education is still hard if you are using that technology in a one-bedroom apartment shared by seven family members.

Whose work is it anyway? We are used to thinking that leadership is about doing the work, solving the problem. It’s straightforward with more typical problems and challenges. We find a mechanic if the church van breaks down. A non-profit asks an accountant to clean up the financial statements. A board of directors replaces an ineffective CEO. But who exactly does the work of mobilizing a community to wear masks? Unlike the aforementioned delegations to a mechanic, accountant, or board of directors, no one in this case has the expertise or authority to do what’s necessary for progress on the many daunting problems before us.

The uncertainty of this era also says something about what kinds of muscles our leadership habits need to grow. At the very time when we need a spirit of experimentation to learn our way forward, the pressure on those in authority to solve problems is off the charts. Certainty isn’t always helpful, and if we’re honest, in “normal” times it’s always more of a chosen perception than a reality. Leadership in this unmasked era needs to be experimental. That means trying things, failing, learning, trying something else, bringing in unlikely suspects to shed light on surprise pathways.

In 2007, my colleagues and I started an effort to build leadership capacity for twenty-first-century challenges, challenges that require us to adapt and change, and that demand disruption to the status quo. The initiative, the Kansas Leadership Center, was fueled by a $30 million investment from the Kansas Health Foundation, and has since trained over ten thousand Kansans to lead their families, neighbourhoods, organizations, and communities.

Much like the Spaniard in The Princess Bride questioning the Sicilian about his use of the word “inconceivable,” we had a feeling the word “leadership” did not mean what people thought it meant. We started with deep listening, spending most of a year engaging everyday Kansans from diverse backgrounds and experts—with lived experience and others with learned experience—in Kansas and throughout the country. The listening taught us to expand and enhance the way people think about leadership, who it is for and how it is done. The voices of Kansans articulated a civic culture needing a new type of leadership that would be more collaborative, engaging, purposeful, and provocative.

The pandemic amplifies this need and creates calls for more leadership across our country and world. But this situation doesn’t respond to traditional notions of command and control. No one knows the exact way forward. No one in authority has literally been here before. Based on this reality and on our experience listening and cultivating the voices of thousands in our state, my colleagues and I offer the following guideposts for leading in uncertain times.

1. Leadership is mobilizing others to make progress on daunting challenges. Leadership is an activity, not a position. A mayor, governor, CEO, or pastor isn’t leading simply because they make declarative statements, give a good speech, or demonstrate courage in the face of uncertainty. They are leading if and only if their efforts are mobilizing others to make progress on daunting challenges.

For example, a governor mandating the wearing of masks is not necessarily leadership. It is a tactic, an intervention. Mobilizing others requires you to engage them, not dictate to them. Most likely there are some factions among your constituents who are with you, and others who aren’t on board. You must start where they are, with how they understand the situation. You can’t force them to “get it” the way you do. The goal is a collective purpose among enough of the factions. Achieve that and progress won’t be far behind. The mask mandate of a governor who first engaged the different political factions, listened with curiosity, and used her authority to help find a collective way forward is more likely to be an intervention that leads to sustained progress.

2. The shelter must be built before the storm. According to our recent research, most of what makes it hard to solve pandemic-related problems existed prior to COVID-19. Progress is slow because of poor civic engagement, a polarized culture, lack of empathy for others, inequity, ineffective policies, and an inability to work across factions in our communities, organizations, and country. So, yes, we should have been stockpiling masks, ventilators, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes. And we should have been stockpiling high-quality engagement, across difference. Quality leadership creates a culture that can withstand the storm of turmoil and uncertainty.

3. Engage unusual voices. In this era of uncertainty, your go-to people, your inner circle, those you turn to for advice, support, and help aren’t sufficient. Unusual voices—the people and groups you seldom engage—are needed. Why? They see the problem differently from you. No one sees the whole problem, so the only way to stand a chance at mobilizing progress is to engage enough voices in hopes that a collective understanding of the problem emerges. Engaging unusual voices is risky. You might be rejected. It takes time. It’s outside your box. But it is a powerful act. It energizes the work and creates clarity and collective will.

4. Language is key—theirs not yours. Leadership is about mobilizing others, and usually those “others” don’t talk like you and your tribe. For example, our political tribes have key words that dominate their vocabulary. Use words and phrases like “equity,” “social justice,” and “health care is a right” when trying to mobilize people left of center. “Responsibility,” “order and justice,” “faith,” and “freedom” dominate right-of-center vocabulary. I’m suggesting no judgment on which of the words are best, but simply conveying that you will make more progress by using their words, not yours.

5. The power is in the question, not the answer. Picture a conference table with someone at the head of the table passing out questions, not orders. Engage people with questions to create dialogue and discovery. Questions keep us in diagnosis. They test assumptions and interpretations. During times of uncertainty, when taking action is our instinct, asking questions leads to better outcomes. Keep questions open-ended. Use them to propel discovery and dialogue. What’s our intention here? What does success look like to you? What assumptions do we need to test? What would someone with a very different set of beliefs say about this? The key is that each question fuels curiosity and opens people’s thinking.

6. People fear loss, not change. Our research team reviewed academic papers focused on times of forced adaptation in the past. Organizations who come through uncertainty most successfully and are best positioned to thrive on the “other side” of a crisis are those making conscious choices to retrench and invest. They are willing to make conscious choices to change. By cutting back and letting go, we free up resources (i.e., time, money, and energy) to channel into new strategies and directions. But here’s the rub: retrenchment is hard. When leading it’s tempting to chalk up resistance to our efforts as simply the tired mantra that “people fear change.” People are fine with change, if it is good for them. What they fear is the loss that comes with some types of change.

7. Keep the problem present. It’s impossible in our family to get everyone to agree that we should do a complicated, one-thousand-piece puzzle. But simply put the pieces on the dining room table and it won’t be long before someone starts to sort the edges. A day later, someone connects the edges. The next day parts of the puzzle come together. A day later the puzzle nears completion and the family celebrates. When leading during uncertainty, keep the problem present. Don’t hold one meeting, hold several. Make it easy for others to contribute when they are able. Eliminate barriers to engagement. Open more lines of communication.

People fear loss, not change.

The key is that times of uncertainty require leadership from the many, not the few. The ideas above are not meant just for the authorities. The way out of times like these isn’t led by a lone hero. Leadership from the brilliant CEO, the inspiring politician, the sincere rabbi, or the dedicated non-profit executive is needed, but it’s not enough for an organization or community to thrive. As we’ve explored, the problems are too complex, too adaptive, too wicked. Authority must do its part, but its part is insufficient. Uncertainty can be tamed when individuals throughout an organization or community, with authority and without, exercise leadership for the greater good. Anyone can lead, anytime, anywhere. When enough people believe this and act on it, progress can be made on our most daunting challenges.

Ed O'Malley
Ed O'Malley

Ed O’Malley is the founding president and CEO of the Kansas Leadership Center and a former member of the state’s House of Representatives. He is also the co-author of three books related to the work and mission of the KLC. He is married to his childhood sweetheart, Joanna, and they make their home in Wichita, Kansas, with their three children.


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