Leadership truths for an uncertain future

Will “uncertainty” be the Word of the Year in 2019? It might be for organizations even if it doesn’t make the list for everyone. Find out why and what you can do to succeed if uncertainty is the new certain.

The Oxford Dictionaries has selected a word of the year annually since 2004. It is a “word or expression that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year.”

We’ll take another trip around the Sun before the word for 2019 is revealed, but I’m staking a claim now. The best single-word description of the future is uncertain.

Uncertainty is everywhere. The NFIB small business uncertainty index reached a 42-year high in November 2018. Global worries about growth and geopolitical conflict have stock markets throughout the world on edge. CEO confidence, while still positive, is at the lowest point in 2 years.

For IT leaders, a 3.2 percent spending increase is predicted in 2019, but that doesn’t mean that your world is any more certain. There are the potential priorities and changes that you know such as IoT, security and use of data, everything as a service, and the next steps in artificial intelligence. There are those that could emerge based on their timing such as 5G networks, virtual and augmented reality and Blockchain. And, there are uncertainties that you might have considered but have little control over such as whether digital transformation finally makes the move from an IT, marketing, or HR project to a business priority led by the CEO.

Meanwhile, the demands on your team to stay focused, productive, and responsive continue. No one will give you a pass on fulfilling today’s commitments just because the world around you lurches from one set of priorities and circumstances to the next.

In hind sight, leaders have had it relatively easy for the past couple of years. Despite the difficulty of enormous change, at least there has been some consistency in knowing the game you are playing. Leading in an uncertain world, on the other hand, will be like a continuous game of chess where the players move without warning and act in ways that you don’t expect or recognize.

If this sounds familiar, Lewis Carroll described that exact scenario in his classic book Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.  In the story, Alice succeeds despite her initial belief that everything is impossible. You can, too, by acknowledging and acting on these leadership truths for an uncertain world.

Results rule

Past success proves that you were right … once. Your team isn’t trusted to do the innovative work of the future if it can’t deliver positive results today.

This truth is based on the principle of reciprocal trust. Your partners in the business will likely struggle with uncertainty, too. They, like you, are searching for a resource and direction they can trust.

Edwards Deming said, “Without trust, there can be no cooperation between people, teams, departments, divisions. Without trust, each component will protect its own immediate interests, to its long-term detriment and to the detriment of the entire system.”

You need others to look beyond their self-interests to the interests of the enterprise. A solid strategy, flawless execution, and delivering on promises are the baseline for everything that follows. They are a sure way to build the confidence necessary to tackle the uncharted territory that comes with uncertainty.

Change leadership is more important than change management

A study from researchers at the University College of London and King’s College Hospital found that every measure of stress maxes out when uncertainty exists. In fact, people do better with the certainty of a negative outcome than they do with uncertainty about what might or might not occur.

That stress floods the brain’s striatum with dopamine according to Marc Lewis, a neuroscience professor at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. We know that dopamine and the striatum play a crucial role in addiction. It turns out that they also generate action—specifically the human tendency toward fight or flight.

If you act rationally in the face of uncertainty, you ignore the initial fight or flight tendency, weigh the relevant facts, and make a reasoned decision. Unfortunately, that happens less than you would hope.

Robert Cialdini wrote in his classic book, Influence, “Very often in making a decision about someone or something, we don’t use all the relevant available information. We use, instead, only a single, highly representative piece of the total.”

Cialdini goes on to explain that uncertainty and stress are two of the prominent times when we take the shortcut of using limited data to justify our decisions. In those situations, there is also a tendency to rely on social proof to justify our choice.

Leading in uncertainty is, in essence, asking people to abandon their instinct and take a journey to an unknown destination with an unclear outcome for their efforts. That doesn’t happen when people feel managed. It occurs when you are the trusted voice of leadership.

Everything is connected. Partnerships matter

Astrophysicist Eric Jantsch wrote, “In life, the issue is not control, but dynamic connectedness.”

Jantsch’s theory about the formation of the universe also applies to organizations and their people. Leaders that succeed in the face of uncertainty understand the magnitude and simplicity of our connections. Success depends on our ability to create interdependent partnerships where everyone takes responsibility for positive results. Relationships that have grown into shared vision and accountability don’t just make the difference, that’s all there is.

Successful relationships that grow into partnerships require commitment, time, and hard work. It is a truth that can be observed in long-term personal relationships and in the way successful organizations relate to their customers, vendors, and employees.

Reduced communication is often the first symptom of a personal relationship that is in trouble. The same applies to relationships with those you wish to influence. Now is the time to fight any tendency to refrain from or decrease how much you invest in both sharing and hearing information.

Additionally, the best leaders know that their actions usually speak louder than their words. An otherwise routine decision to realign or cut resources can lower confidence and morale when the environment is uncertain.

I interviewed Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil and U.S. Secretary of State, for my book On My Honor, I Will. During our conversation, Tillerson told me, “When I make a decision, I know the organization will be closely watching. You are always on. You never have the luxury of an off moment or an off day.”

Everything is connected, and in times of uncertainty, the most important thing you can control is how you nurture and grow those connections.

The culture always wins. Make sure yours is nimble

The impact of culture is never more apparent than in times of uncertainty.  A great strategy implemented by a sluggish culture is less likely to succeed than a less than perfect strategy in the hands of a nimble organization.

If you have a nimble organizational culture now, take precautions to not mess it up. That means fighting the tendency to pull back on those perceived “soft” qualities that make your culture a strategic advantage.

If your culture isn’t as nimble as you know it needs to be, start changing it now – before you are in full-blown crisis of uncertainty mode. 

Culture change follows behavior and performance change. Set specific, measurable goals for the results you want to achieve, the relationships you want to build, and the performance needed to take you there. Evaluate structures and systems to ensure alignment with purpose and objectives. Hold people accountable for the way results are achieved and not just the results themselves. Reinforce the learning habit by focusing on the whole, looking for the interrelationships that exist in a connected world, and asking questions that force the organization to show increased urgency and learn from experience.

Most important, grow leaders that set the right example and support the culture at every level. It is the best way to leverage your influence and maintain a sense of well-being in the midst of chaos.

We’ll find out in November, 2019 if uncertainty even made it as a top contender for Word of the Year. In the meantime, the indications are clear that the coming year will bring even more surprises, disruption, and need for a nimble culture.

The French novelist Marcel Proust said, “The real art of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.”  Now is the time to see your organization through the eyes of anticipating and adapting to an uncertain future.

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