Uncertain Times: The True Test of a Leader

The ability to lead through change is a defining marker of a great leader. Change shapes leaders, and leaders have tremendous potential to shape change. In fact, “leadership” ranks as the top factor in enabling both readiness and lasting capability for change, according to our research.1 We’re already in an era of constant change, and the pandemic has (unpredictably) accelerated the world’s change trajectory. Those who successfully navigate periods of change, turbulence, and uncertainty possess four core characteristics in their leadership style:

  • Purpose
  • Clarity
  • The whole self
  • Community

In this blog, we will explore each of these areas in greater detail and outline how you can put them into practice.


Why does this matter?

Changes that are purpose-driven are most likely to succeed. A recent study shows that employees of companies with an uninspiring or non-existent purpose are 39 percent more likely to experience burnout. Why? If employees lack a unifying goal or mission, or if their organisation's purpose doesn't resonate, they will be unable to work tirelessly to fulfill that purpose without burning out. It is tough to feel excited about working towards something when it doesn’t feel like it matters.

Conversely, when the purpose is clear, employees will go the extra mile to advance the company's goals and objectives. Take Unilever, for example. To reinforce its purpose of making sustainable living commonplace, the company provided personal care products and ran a handwashing campaign. Actions like these reinforce an organisation’s purpose and can serve as a rallying point for employees.

We have seen organisations transform rapidly in the last few months, with the pandemic creating a clear and compelling platform for change. As we move towards recovery, the leaders who succeed in driving sustainable change will link their change agenda to the core purpose of their business. That purpose must be employee and customer-driven to resonate.

How to go about it

  • Define the purpose and value of the change. If it is in your scope to define the effort, then outline it clearly. If it is not, then seek clarity. This is the single-most important step to successfully land change. In fact, 55 percent of organisations tell us that a shared vision is the most influential factor in building alignment for change.2
  • Demonstrate linkages and create alignment. Is it clear how the purpose of this change aligns to the broader purpose of the company? Lack of alignment will create friction and tension that prevents your organisation from pursuing the change wholeheartedly.
  • Consider the enablers of purpose and configure them to bring that purpose to life. These enablers include the structures, direction, processes, experiences, attitudes, behaviours, relationships, and capabilities within your organisation.


Why does this matter?

As people, we crave clarity and certainty. We do not do well with ambiguity. A sense of uncertainty generates a physical reaction, a strong threat response in our limbic system. Put simply, our brains do not like uncertainty. Much like a type of pain, our instincts advise us to avoid it. On the other hand, certainty feels rewarding, and we tend to steer towards it.

How to go about it

  • Agree on responsibilities upfront for engaging around the change. Be clear on who’s saying what to whom and when—and then stick to it.
  • Aim for simple, straightforward language. Apply this quick acid test: If it takes a long time to write it, then it is probably not a clear enough message. Test the message on someone outside your company to see if it is simple and clear.
  • Seek opportunities to create certainty when possible. Find the controllable within the uncontrollable. For example, a leader might say, “I don’t know the answers yet, but I will commit to updating you every other day.”

The whole self

Why does this matter?

Now more than ever—as remote work blurs the boundaries between personal and professional life—we bring our whole selves to work. Successful leaders recognise this reality and actively encourage whole-person engagement when they bring their complete selves to work and model that to the entire organisation. Our research suggests that this may be a challenge today. 52 percent of organisations report that a lack of workplace flexibility is among their top obstacles to retaining talent—signaling that business leaders may struggle to design the employee experiences that acknowledge the competing work-life demands facing employees.3

How to go about it

  • Encourage openness by showing vulnerability, honesty, and empathy. Storytelling is one effective approach to create an open climate. Another simple tactic is to allow people to see a little of your home life (e.g., pets, kids, and home décor) in conference calls.
  • Create space to listen. Effective tactics include listening sessions, breakfast drop-ins, or ad hoc calls. The key is to demonstrate availability and then follow that up by taking meaningful action.
  • Show appreciation. Appreciation is a foundational element of strong relationships. It goes beyond recognition (which targets performance or outputs) by focusing on the employee qualities and characteristics that we value—such as humility, kindness, or humour—regardless of the outcomes. We can express appreciation anytime, anywhere.


Why does this matter?

During times of change, leaders may be inclined to limit the number of voices they consult in decision-making, to demonstrate both decisiveness and the ability to move quickly. However, applying concepts from publications such as Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas, and learning from the Medici Effect, we know a better solution results from diversity—one that embodies a variety of perspectives. Marrying this reality with the notion that we value things more if we’ve contributed to them (93 percent of organisations agree that involving employees in the design of change solutions leads to higher levels of buy-in), the power of leveraging the community comes into focus.

How to go about it

  • Crowd-source ideas and work. This tactic is easier than ever before in the world of remote work, where digital tools decrease reliance on in-person interactions. For example, a leader might use Ideaboardz for people to add their thoughts, or set up a whiteboard on Microsoft Teams. Successful leaders take the extra step to post business needs and let people opt-in to support them, matching critical demands with motivated people.
  • Understand your stakeholders. Consider not only the stakeholders you need to influence, but also those you are impacting. Find ways to hear those people’s voices and get them involved. As a first step, seek their perspective on whether the purpose of the change is evident.

Talk to a leader about a formative experience that taught them about who they are. They will almost always highlight an example that relates to a period of change. As you continue your leadership journey and need to navigate change, let purpose, clarity, the whole self, and community be the compass that guides you.

1,2: February 2020 North Highland-sponsored survey of > 400 business leaders from organisations with annual revenues > $1B and that are headquartered in the U.S. and U.K.

3: March 2020 North Highland-sponsored survey of > 200 business leaders from organisations with annual revenues > $1B and that are headquartered in the U.S. and U.K.