Leading Through Uncertainty
Leaders who admit they don’t know everything are not only truthful and transparent but set a good example and help to build a culture where others are encouraged to learn as well.
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The last two years have been like a decathlon for leaders — long, grueling and with a series of different challenges. They’ve had to balance the needs of the business against those of employees; figure out the logistics of remote work; preserve culture when people no longer connect in person; keep morale high during distress and disruption; and recognize that flexibility and nimbleness, rather than order and structure, are the new currency, to name just a handful of challenges they’ve faced.
Good leaders have figured out how to get the best out of their people and their organizations during this uncertain time. We’ve seen numerous examples of this in companies that pivoted swiftly and successfully. Great leaders have figured out how also to give the best of themselves. What does this mean?
Giving your best isn’t about being the best — just the opposite, in fact. For starters, it’s about recognizing that you don’t know everything and that you never will. This requires both a learning mindset and an ability to delegate and trust those underneath you to do their jobs. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck tells us that a good leader should not be a know-it-all, but rather should aspire to be a learn-it-all. This requires you as a leader to: demonstrate confidence amid uncertainty, admit that there are things you don’t know, seek solutions and knowledge from colleagues and the people you lead, and do so with a strong enough sense of purpose that your team retains confidence in you.
Leading By Example
Leaders who admit they don’t know everything are not only truthful and transparent but set a good example and help to build a culture where others are encouraged to learn as well. A report I co-authored in the Academy of Management, “Developing Leaders to Serve, Developing Servants to Lead,” shows how adopting a servant leadership style results in positive organizational outcomes and provides a road map for organizations on how to create an environment conducive to developing servant leaders.
While many organizations have largely replaced the “command-and-control leadership” style that crested in the last decades of the 20th century, the journey to "servant leadership" has been less codified. I admit that I sometimes struggle with the term. I understand the idea behind it, but I think it’s better expressed in the phrase “service leadership.”
That’s where everyone — from the CEO and the board to the lowest-level employee — realizes that they are there to be of service to customers, to each other and to all stakeholders. It doesn’t have the ring of false modesty that servant leadership sometimes can, but it’s a phrase that still sends a powerful message, and one that I think is highly applicable now.
A Level Playing Field
The other thing I like about service leadership is it puts everyone on a more level playing field. We are all acting — or should be acting — in service of what is best for the business. And frankly, if that’s not clear, this mindset can help set the way for honest discussions about what your mission is.
Companies frequently have mission statements displayed prominently: a quote from the founder about their desire to stay true to a principle or about their commitment to change or improve something. For example, Tesla’s is “to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy.” The mission statement for Philips is "focused on improving people’s lives through meaningful innovation across the health continuum.” Both of those statements contain worthy goals, with the company’s desire to do good made perfectly clear.
But it’s not always easy for employees to connect the work they do with a mission statement. That’s why I’m challenging fellow leaders, and myself, to rethink how they exemplify their companies’ missions. Can they see a direct line from their own work to the mission statement? More importantly, can their employees? Can their employees recite the company’s mission statement? In many cases, probably not.
In Praise Of Profits
This brings us back to the idea of service leadership. Talk to your employees about what you are all doing. What is it in service of? Sure, the pursuit of profit is likely one thing. (And unless you are working for a nonprofit, that should be one of the pillars of your mission.) But what else? When a company has gone through significant changes — whether a change in leadership or market conditions — the connection to mission might seem more obscure. Encourage conversations among employees at all levels about “mission.” Let senior staff and managers know that it’s OK to lead these kinds of conversations and that it’s OK if there is a level of uncertainty.
When a crisis of the magnitude of Covid-19 comes along, it makes people question what they are doing in every aspect of their lives: Am I really doing what I want? Am I making a difference? Am I happy? What is the point of what we do? Don’t fight against the natural pull toward questions of this nature. Use this time to help employees think about what you are all doing. It’s OK to question and to wonder. It’s also OK not to know all the answers right now.
Uncertainty unchecked can eventually lead to chaos. I’m not advocating for that. I’m saying that acknowledging that uncertainty is a factor right now is the best thing to do and can ultimately help you get the best out of your employees and the best outcome for everyone.
Originally appeared in Forbes on February 8, 2022.