Positive Leadership in Uncertain Times

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Power of Ideas

Positive Leadership in Uncertain Times

Author(s)
Liz Hilton Segel
Liz Hilton Segel
(North America Managing Partner, McKinsey & Company, Inc.)

For business leaders, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated unprecedented change. More than ever, the health of businesses is urgently and visibly linked with the health of workforces, the health of our society, and the health of our planet. Previously unimaginable shifts in our daily lives are compelling companies to adapt quickly and identify creative, unconventional ways to operate and survive. Worldwide uncertainty makes it more difficult for leaders to find their footing—and those who like to operate from a place of clarity are finding few ports in this global storm.

The question most leaders are facing, then, is this: How do we move forward in such uniquely uncertain circumstances? Positive, effective leadership helps us navigate crises, rebuild communities, and forge ahead in moments of ambiguity. But with so many challenges colliding at once, many leaders may be struggling to chart a clear way forward.

In order to gain that foothold and respond effectively, leaders should act on three imperatives: clarifying your purpose, supporting your stakeholders, and bolstering your emotional and organizational resilience.

The first step is to rediscover or reemphasize your purpose. The temptation for businesses in moments of crisis is often to get small, to hunker down and zero in on bottom-line fundamentals and metrics. Now, instead of narrowing their focus, leaders in a crisis should consider pulling back and reminding themselves of their guiding principles. Emphasizing purpose will also signal your intentions to the wider world, instilling confidence and goodwill among stakeholders who share your principles. In times of change, workers, consumers, and investors alike will gravitate toward organizations whose purpose reflects their personal values and beliefs.

In order to gain that foothold and respond effectively, leaders should act on three imperatives: clarifying your purpose, supporting your stakeholders, and bolstering your emotional and organizational resilience.

The second step is to ask what actions you can take to protect and support those who rely on you and the organization—especially those who may be particularly vulnerable or whose needs are becoming increasingly acute. That means taking stock of who your stakeholders are—from customers and investors to employees, communities, and society as a whole. It means identifying what they need—and recognizing that these needs may differ in each case. And it means determining how you can serve them most effectively, from short-term decisions like how to continue operations at a time of physical distancing, to long-term considerations such as whether to prioritize employees’ current wages or equity for retirement. It may also include potentially redesigning supply chains to support local employment while also strengthening the resiliency of operations. Your stakeholders are the people who drive and measure your success, and particularly when success feels elusive, recommitting to them can galvanize the trust, confidence, and morale required to forge ahead.

The third step is to prioritize your emotional and organizational resilience. Even with a strong purpose and a plan to serve your extended community, your progress may not be immediately apparent. You will need to marshal resolve in order to stay the course—and to handle the kind of attention that comes from doing so. To make that adjustment, identify and access the actions and behaviors that make you a more thoughtful and capable leader—whether that involves making time for activities that restore your energy, pursuing the space you need to gain perspective, or simply ensuring that you are getting the sleep you need. In short, find balance.

Equally important is empowering the right teams. When faced with an overwhelming volume of critical decisions, leaders may feel the urge to limit authority and tighten control. But organizational resilience depends on more stakeholders and perspectives, organized across a network of cross-functional teams with clear mandates. Empowering leaders with the right temperament and character—those who stay curious and flexible and are willing to make the tough, even unpopular calls—is vital for thoughtful and swift decision-making.

Every step involves choices that are tough to make even in good times, let alone in uncertain ones, but the same instincts and actions that will see us through this current global crisis will also make us stronger as we face longer-term challenges. The ability to understand who we are and what we value, recognize our responsibilities and our opportunities, and chart a course based on our most fundamental goals while supporting our own emotional resilience and that of our organization—these are skills that will fortify us in the years and decades ahead. As we navigate an uncertain road today, our approach to this moment will inform the way we lead tomorrow.

Published April 14, 2020