How to Lead in Times of Uncertainty

02/13/2017 06:00AM

War in Syria. Assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey. The biggest refugee crisis since World War II. And the United States is about to get a new president that has no track record of public service that would indicate how he will actually lead.

There is a palpable sense of uncertainty today. As a leader, what do you do with that? How do you plan for a future that’s blurry?

This is not new. Uncertainty did not arrive on election night or with the latest headlines, though it does feel especially intense at the moment. But new technology and innovation have been disrupting industries for a while now. This uncertainty includes but also extends well beyond current events to encompass the rapid-fire pace of innovation that leaves no room for complacency for any business model, product or service.

So whether it’s because of new trade rules, changing federal regulations, or an out-of-nowhere disruptive technology—your business or industry might look radically different one year from now.

So, back to the question: How does one lead in times of uncertainty?

For some insight, I turned to Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat. In addition to more than doubling Red Hat’s revenue since he joined in 2008, Whitehurst was COO of Delta Airlines on 9/11 and during the aftermath – so he has some experience helping a company navigate times of intense uncertainty.

He believes there are positive and proactive steps leaders can take to get their house in order to feel more confident, even when the future is unclear. One of the most important steps is cultivating agility.

“It’s about building greater agility into your company to be able to react, more than it is about guessing where the future is,” said Whitehurst.

He explained that leadership is no longer about figuring out what to do, telling people what to do, then measuring what they’ve done. “In an uncertain world, almost by definition, you can’t figure it out – that’s the whole problem,” said Whitehurst. “So the management problem needs to be less about ‘let me be a smart strategist’ and much more about ‘how do I build the capabilities in my organization to be able to react quickly when things happen?’”

Whitehurst said the analogy he often uses is the U.S. Air Force’s development of a process called the OODA loop for fighter pilots: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. The faster you can run that OODA loop in a given situation, the more likely it is that you are going to be successful.

He shared an example from Red Hat. “There’s a hot area in technology called ‘containers’ that nobody even knew about two and a half years ago. Without it ever needing to come to me, the organization reacted, went all in, and we built support into our existing products. If we had done strategic planning, even an annual planning process, we would have been a year late to that party.”

This tapped into something I’ve believed for a while now: traditional annual planning is a practice rooted in outdated templates, and is no longer relevant or viable in a business environment that requires new thinking. If a company needs to jump on an opportunity today but the plan or budget doesn’t allow for that level of spontaneity, then the opportunity is lost.

Red Hat was able to respond to the “container” opportunity because the company was already structured in a way that assumed there would be surprises, and therefore they’d already made it possible for people to respond in real time. Red Hat employees saw an opportunity and followed their entrepreneurial spirits. They knew it was safe to do that because their leader doesn’t focus on being the one to drive things—Jim maximizes the potential of others.

This is a great example of how to anticipate the unexpected. When you don’t know what will happen or what opportunities will present themselves, you can’t prepare for a specific action. Instead, you prepare by laying the groundwork that enables action in the first place: groundwork that enables agility.

Agility requires that there’s enough diversity of thought throughout an organization that people know that their individual contributions and ideas will be valued. Most businesses force themselves upon their employees, stripping employees of the ability to have their own identity that will help the organization evolve.

If employees don’t feel free or safe to pursue opportunities, they won’t. And why would they? It’s not easy to unleash your passionate pursuits in that way. In fact, it can be threatening. To see an opportunity and act on it challenges the status quo, and challenging the status quo means raising expectations of yourself and inviting public accountability. This requires doing more than you’re told to do. It’s about declaring: “I see an opportunity here, and I’m going to take it.” There’s a risk: you might be wrong. But there’s also a reward: you might be right. In any case, your company won’t miss out on an opportunity.

Outdated templates have created gaps in the workplace that breed stagnation rather than new roads to opportunities for growth. We need to innovate—to shift our mindsets, reinvent leadership, and sustain growth by unlocking the entrepreneurial spirit within employees.

From my organization's research I know companies still have a long way to go in this area. Based on data I’ve collected over the years, people say they are most proficient at execution of the work they are assigned to complete, but unable to see beyond the obvious opportunities. They lack the required strategic focus and entrepreneurial mindset to multiply the opportunities for the initial task they are asked to complete. In other words, the workplace has trained and conditioned employees to be doers as opposed to thinkers.

But as Whitehurst noted: “Telling people what to do is antiquated. You just can’t move that fast.”

The good news is, whenever you spot an opportunity gap like this – the opportunity of having agility built into your workforce and company culture – that means there’s room for improvement if you can close that gap.

First step: cultivate agility.

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