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Leading When You Don’t Know What Lies Ahead

It’s right there on your TV, your computer screen and the front page of the newspaper. The world is changing, and it’s changing fast. The Cubs even won the World Series! How are we supposed to adapt effectively to all this change and help our teams and organizations navigate into this brave new world? Here are some ways to lead during these uncertain times.

1) Allow yourself to admit what a big deal change is. We are all taught from childhood to say “It’s okay,” whenever anyone asks us what is wrong. In times of accelerated change, that message feels false to say and false to hear. While leadership definitely means taking responsibility for making it okay, it also means acknowledging real challenges when they appear. When your boss or someone on your staff says “How are you doing?” it’s healthy to say something like “Wow, there’s a lot going on. I’m trying to prioritize the important things and not lose too much sleep.” That lets the people around you know that you’re not sticking your head in the sand and ignoring potential struggle ahead. It also gives them permission to do the same thing, to share their concerns and look for constructive ways to handle them.

2) Look at the big picture. Change makes us all nervous. We’re hard-wired to be suspicious and even fearful when our routines are disrupted. Strong leaders find ways to frame change in non-threatening terms, which means reminding our colleagues to step back and get a fresh perspective when anxiety strikes. We are all experienced with change; we encounter it frequently in our personal and professional lives. If we survived it — and most of us did or you wouldn’t be reading this — then we gained some valuable skills that will help us keep our balance now. Focus on what “old” skills, tasks and procedures will still be helpful in the “new” scenario. Bolster your team’s confidence by reminding them of their past successes. Leadership through change requires a vision of dedication and optimism, to keep all team members fully engaged.

3) Get creative. The dismantling of old routines creates an immensely fertile opportunity to replace them with something more efficient and more effective. This is an opportunity for leaders to offer meaningful feedback that may change the course of the organization. If you have experience or information that may help your organization avoid wasting money or time during times of transition, speak up. If you see new ways to streamline processes or redistribute resources, make sure those ideas have a chance to be heard. While uncertainty makes us nervous, it also breaks down many of the assumptions and self-imposed barriers that we create for ourselves, opening new options for growth. Leadership means grasping those opportunities and using them to strengthen our performance, our teams and our organizations.

4) Do your homework. All of our familiar landscapes are shifting right now, from the political world to the business environment. New ideas are being created and discussed and new protocols are being piloted and studied. Leadership means taking the time — even outside of business hours — to become informed about what is happening in and around your industry. Are you in healthcare? Make sure you understand the ramifications of the government regulations on your team’s goals and metrics. Make sure you understand all of the concepts in current journal articles about your field — and look them up if you don’t. It’s way less embarrassing than being called out on misunderstanding in a strategy meeting.

5) Stay flexible and responsive. The only sure thing about change is that there will be more change. It’s very tempting to hunker down and wish it would all go away, but leadership doesn’t work like that. If you want your team to be open to new ways of doing things, to ask questions and think outside their comfort zone, you will need to model that behavior yourself. To achieve a leadership position, you had to prove your ability to handle change gracefully. Use those skills now, to show your team what effective change management looks like. Treat new processes and procedures as learning opportunities, not as ways to seek out and punish weakness. Admit your own mistakes when you can, and make sure your team sees you working to correct them. Ask for suggestions and take them whenever possible, to build mutual trust between you and your staff. During times of stress people tend to bond together around common work. Help your team see change as a pathway to demonstrate their unique excellence.

As the flow of information becomes ever faster, change will become more and more the norm in professional life. Learning how to adapt to it, even to embrace it, is part of any leadership role. If you can learn how to relax in a rapidly-changing environment, your team will follow you. If you can confront uncertainty with humor, courage and enthusiasm, you will give strength to your colleagues and to your organization. As we all move forward into times of increasing change and uncertainty, we each have the chance to model what real leadership is. Don’t waste it.