Leading Through Uncertainty
Updated: May 15, 2020
What Showing Up Looks Like Now
At Leverage to Lead, we help women and people of color show up with agency and authenticity. But what does that look like in the midst of a crisis? Our civic, professional, and personal lives are undergoing unprecedented change. What does it mean to live through, let alone lead through, these days of panic and uncertainty?
It’s safe to say our teams are showing up differently right now. They’re tired. They’re worried. They’re assessing risks constantly while managing many more people and needs at home. Or, while deeply isolated at home.
For those who lead these teams, it’s much the same, perhaps compounded with a certain loneliness in not being able to fully express their fears because we believe that serving teams well means not showing vulnerability. We are all being asked to show up in new and unexpected ways. And we’re figuring out daily—maybe even hourly—what that needs to look like.
If you’re a leader who is finding her way slowly through this crisis, we want to say first that you are not alone. We see you. We want to name what we’re going through, to share vulnerably, and to offer support as we move forward together.
How We Build Our Own Barriers
In times of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, we tend to fall into behavior patterns of negative self-talk, overthinking, and perfection paralysis: we berate our shortcomings and talk ourselves out of trying. We spin out every possible outcome and tear down anything that seems less than perfect. We procrastinate.
What’s lurking beneath all these behaviors is our fear of failure. So, we talk ourselves out of acting in order to protect ourselves from failure. And, in a terrible twist, we’re fooled into thinking that all this anxious ruminating is action instead of the very thing blocking action.
In a short video, Mellody Hobson shares about the breakthrough moment that freed her from paralysis in the face of failure. Essentially, she realized that even if she failed, she would still wake up the next day and “do what I do.” Because life goes on despite failure, illness, and even death. Gaining freedom from the fear of failure is what has made her a better leader.
Right now, you have to lead as well.
You don’t need to do it perfectly.
You don’t have to have all the answers.
Too often, we think leadership is about absolute clarity on the future. But really, it’s about our relationships. Because we don’t just show up. We show up for, with, and among others.
In that spirit, here are a few things we think will be helpful in showing up at this time.
“No leader sets out to be a leader. People set out to live their lives, expressing themselves fully. When that expression is of value, they become leaders. So the point is not to become a leader. The point is to become yourself, to use yourself completely–all your skills, gifts and energies–in order to make your vision manifest. You must withhold nothing. You must, in sum, become the person you started out to be, and to enjoy the process of becoming.” - Warren Bennis
1. You can choose, and adapt, how you show up.
While it may seem like our sphere of control is disappearing, we actually retain agency over how we show up each day. We can choose to show up in the way we most need or are most needed. One day, you show up with an agenda and unmatched energy. Another day, you show up as a parent who helps with schoolwork for hours. Other days, you are the neighbor, the friend, the sister, the volunteer. There will be days when you need to write yourself a permission slip to show up in your pajamas, underprepared, pulled in all directions, exhausted, and needing extra help.
Your agency here is about knowing and setting your priorities. It’s about being self-aware and honest about your capacity and what you can offer today. It’s about knowing that tomorrow, things will be different, and you’ll have to weigh what matters most all over again. Does it matter that my team missed a step, or that they’re well connected right now? Does it matter that my kid can’t do fractions, or that she’s independently learning a new life skill? You decide.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” -Maya Angelou
2. Check in.
There is nothing more powerful than providing your team members space to feel heard, seen, and known. Short, regular check-ins can provide a consistent touch point and offer a sense of stability and structure in chaotic times. Focus on your team members as individuals and let them show you their humanity and imperfections. Accepting how they need to show up will help you build trust and encourage honest, authentic interactions. And now is a good time to rely on your team when you need a check-in for yourself.
3. Take care of yourself.
In normal times, we’re rarely not busy. But these times are different. Before, even with all our regular pressures, we probably could make a little time and space to breathe, take a break, be alone. Many of these opportunities are now rare, or even gone. Self-awareness matters now more than ever.
Start by naming what you’re facing. Is it hunger, fatigue, overwhelm, anxiety, loneliness? By naming it, you can respond in ways that are truly beneficial, rejuvenating, and healing. Just like you choose how to show up each day, you can choose what you need at a given moment. Maybe it’s sleep, family time, a movie, or simply turning off your phone for a few hours.
When you’re a leader, self-care is not just for you. Your team is watching and taking its cues from you. When you model proactive and transparent self-awareness, along with the corequisite flexibility, you give your team permission and encouragement to do the same.
“Clear is kind.” -Brené Brown
4. Communicate with clarity, consistency, and transparency.
Hubert Joly writes in the Harvard Business Review that it’s as simple as this: “This is what we’re doing. This is why we’re doing it.”
Good communication right now conveys what your team needs to know and helps them understand your reasoning. Information makes people feel empowered, and when they do, they show up more fully. They make better choices and set healthier boundaries.
Beyond work information, clear communication matters in conveying how you’re showing up and taking care of yourself. In other words, tell your team when you need to turn off your phone. Tell them what you need today and what can wait. Tell them it’s okay for them to do the same.
5. Plan strategically with your team, where appropriate.
Sometimes we get lost in thinking leaders make all the decisions and teams implement without question. We can neglect to ask for feedback and fail to leverage our team’s abilities. Strategic planning during a crisis needs to be proactive and collaborative. When you enlist your team in decision-making, you invite diversity of thought, take some of the burden off your shoulders, and create space for innovation and creativity that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.
You can’t predict the future, but you can plan strategically for your eventual recovery. Future-orientation, with an eye on recovery, provides peace of mind and a sense of stability. And you absolutely should plan for how you want to come back from crisis mode, because everything in life is temporary, even this pandemic. What will endure is the foundation you built and how you supported and empowered your people along the way.
As events unfold and changes continue, we’ll all need to continue leading well and staying well. In our next article, we’ll dig more into another aspect of agency: why we need and how we create necessary boundaries. Watch your inbox for the next article soon.
MJ Mathis is an Associate Leadership Coach and Facilitator at Leverage to Lead. She facilitates adult learning in a way that centers our humanity and creates opportunities for building relationships that foster more positive and productive work environments.