Leading in Uncertain Times

What happened?! Almost overnight we have moved from a growing economy to uncertainty in direction and solutions. We can evaluate the what, why and how but it leaves us needing to lead and navigate in unchartered waters. There are five key steps that leaders need to take to move through this challenging time.

STEP 1: Understand Human Motivation

Yes, step #1 is to become part psychologist. You need to understand what is happening to you, your team and your customers in order to move forward in an effective way. It frames everything you do during this time.

Let’s look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslows' hierarchy is a triangle with 5 levels. The bottom two levels of the pyramid focuses on safety and security needs. Someone who is concerned about safety and security will not be able to move to the next level of social acceptance (e.g. team work) unless they have their safety and security needs met. As we move up the pyramid we have self-esteem and self-actualization which are areas of confidence, self-motivation and productivity.

During times of success and economic growth, individuals, teams and organizations were at the self-esteem/self-actualization levels of the pyramid. As a result of uncertainty, individuals, teams and organizations have moved to the safety and security level of the pyramid.

What does this mean to you as a leader? You need to provide different leadership to individuals, teams and organizations at the safety and security versus the self-esteem/self-actualization level. Individual, teams and organizations at the safety and security level need reassurance, simplicity and frequent communication. Individuals, teams and organizations at self-esteem/self-actualization level need challenging assignment, freedom to grow and clarity of the strategic direction. If you provide the same leadership you provided during the growth times, you will experience behavior such as lack of productivity, anger, push back on ideas, demands for new information. All are signs that you have not shifted your leadership to meet the current needs.

“But my business is doing fine so I don’t need to change.” Even if your business is doing fine, your employees, customers and vendors are being affected by the current economic state. It may be their family members have been laid off, their 401K has shrunk, they can’t make their house payment, or numerous other outside events that affect their needs when they come in the door to work. So recognizing the other factors will be critical to you leading effectively.

And what about you? Where are you on the hierarchy? Are you taking care of your needs so you can respond and take care of your organizations needs? Leadership can be a lonely job. BUT you set the tone for your team or organization. So awareness and strategies to take care of your needs will influence how you lead your team.

STEP 2 – Have a plan!

During times of uncertainly plans need to be nimble, shorter in time focus and evaluated frequently. You may need to re-structure your planning team to make it more responsive and proactive. During growth times we can have a 3-5 year strategic plan being evaluated annually that is developed with a large group of leaders in your organization. During uncertain times it is more effective to have a 6-9 month plan being evaluated bi-monthly with a small team of key leaders.

This plan needs to be communicated frequently with specific action steps that align all individuals and teams in your organization. Everyone needs to be walking the same path and focus to ensure survival of the organization.

Step 3 – Move closer to your customer/clients and vendors

Now is the time to create stronger partnerships and work to solve issues together. Customer loyalty – not just satisfaction – will be an important aspect to current survival and future recovery. But recognize that most of your customers/clients and vendors have moved down Maslow’s hierarchy as well. They need reassurance, a plan, simplicity and frequent communication. Establish a calendar and plan of regular contact with these important partnerships for your organization.

Step 4 – Move closer to your employees

Your employees are the other important component of your leadership success. They are now begin asked to do more with less at the same time as they are dealing with their own uncertainty. Often, companies cut too deep in a response to a financial downturn leaving your employees to be stretched too thin when the recovery occurs. They need the same thing your customers/clients and vendors needs – reassurance, a plan, simplicity and frequent communication. Individual conversations during performance review are not enough. Bi-monthly, if not weekly touch bases need to occur. Establish a similar calendar of frequent communication and regular contact.

Step 5 – Improve, innovate and stabilize process

Now is the time for greater efficiency. Questions to ask:

• How can we simplify our process for clients/customers? How can we make it easier to do business with?

• How can we simplify process for our employees? How can we make it easier and more efficient to them to do their job?

Invite your clients/customers and your employees as a part of this questioning process. This is an opportunity to create greater efficiencies for the recovery ahead.

My experience is that most leaders will prefer to start at Step 5, then Step 2, then Step 3 and ignore Step 1 and 4. It is easier to deal with steps 5, 2 and 3 than steps 1 and 4. But recognize the steps are put together for a reason. Your success in leading through the uncertainty will be directly related to starting and Step 1 and moving systematically to Step 5. This is a different time and a different need. Embrace the process will build an effective foundation for your business now and as we return to growth and stability in the future.


Cheryl Leitschuh, Ed.D., RCC is a leadership development specialist. She inspires individuals and organizations to reach their aspirations using the right tools at the right time! Her latest book, The Leadership Energy: Unlocking the Secrets to Your Success, is an Amazon best seller in the leadership energy category. You will find additional tools and resources to expand your success by visiting TheLeadershipEnergy.com

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