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Do you have what it takes to lead in a time of uncertainty?

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2020 is a year of unprecedented challenges. The devastating Australian bush fires, the global threat of Coronavirus, the upcoming national elections in New Zealand (and the USA) are just a few of the events causing uncertainty, and posing a leadership challenge, for many businesses and organisations today.

Brigid CarrollBrigid Carroll is Professor of Management and International Business at the Business School. An expert in organisational leadership and its development for over 20 years, she is also a facilitator of Executive Education’s Leadership Mindset Programme.

Her teaching and research focuses on the mindset and practices of leadership, leadership in contexts of change and uncertainty, and adaptive, relational and collaborative leadership processes.

She has worked extensively with private and public sector organisations, professional and knowledge-orientated enterprises, and community networks and initiatives.

Developing a leadership mindset

With increasing global interconnectedness and the current challenges facing the world in terms of climate change, the refugee situation, societal polarisation between rich and poor and conflict, effective leadership will be vital in terms of how we respond to these intractable challenges.

All these issues and complexities require disparate groups (and nations) to come together into sustained conversation and shared activity. Whether it is in the context of a nation, community or organisation, leaders who hold a leadership mindset, work through conflict, are reflective, pursue innovative solutions, listen to and empathise with others, and learn collectively are vital.

Leadership, unlike management, cannot be reduced to a set of skills.

Leadership, unlike management, cannot be reduced to a set of skills. Today’s leaders need to learn how to approach challenges and opportunities with a leadership edge. It is common nowadays to work on skills, practices and toolset—and assume that is enough. There is a need for those, but only after a leadership mindset has been set in place.

A leadership mindset is like an orientation. If it is in place, then those practices and skills can be directed to a broader purpose. It’s about thinking, relating, acting and stepping up differently.


Understanding ‘leadership’ and ‘leader’

I would define leadership as ‘mobilising, energising and collaborating with others to engage with an intractable challenge or new possibility’. Leaders catalyse themselves and others to work together to create or solve something.

A ‘leader’ then is anyone who steps into leadership at any moment, remembering that most initiatives need multiple and concurrent leaders to do that. The foremost quality of a leader is the capacity to keep moving in uncertain, ambiguous, conflictual and complex contexts. Those contexts are becoming the norm and, in those contexts, no one can be sure they are right.

Therefore, the ability to keep moving and searching for clues, looking for pathways, drawing on the knowledge and instincts of others, and taking risks to pursue novel ways of knowing things is key. Those who need certainty will get stalled inevitably.

The foremost quality of a leader is the capacity to keep moving in uncertain, ambiguous, conflictual and complex contexts.

Doing the work of leadership

We saw a fabulous example of dealing with uncertainty and a crisis from our own Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during the Christchurch tragedy. She prioritised sharing information, communicating care and empathy, connecting with key agencies and institutions, sparking legislative change and articulating and embodying core values which called to the whole world.

In the face of uncertainty such as the coronavirus threat, leaders could learn from this example, particularly as people become afraid, look for coordination, seek information, and want to see their government working closely with health, security and local communities.

We all want to see leadership that:

  • Keeps revising its way forward as the context changes
  • Communicates in an ongoing fashion
  • Shows its deep care for people
  • Navigates the economy and other social domains and institutions
  • Takes practical action in removing obstacles for communities and organisations to keep flourishing

People often think leadership is an innate skill that certain individuals possess. I don’t believe that is the case and that has been reinforced through my involvement in leadership development. Time and time again I see it comes down to practice/practise. ‘Practice’ (with a ‘c’) refers to something people can acquire or gain through a leadership development experience (such as framing and working through conflict); ‘practise’ (with an ‘s’) means intentionally working at it, experimenting, getting feedback, taking it back to one’s own context and refining it. A powerful leadership development experience will do both.

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