The Importance Of Leadership In Uncertain Times

In an age of global unrest, strength and courage at the helm are more important than ever. As a director, it's your job to ensure your CEO has what it takes.

It is nearly impossible to escape from the unending stream of global unrest, and yet, in extraordinary times people turn to their leaders for guidance and reassurance more than ever before. The Edelman’s Trust Barometer of 2019 shows a global population increasingly pessimistic about the future, and with eroding trust in the institutions that govern the world we live in. Yet, of society’s core institutions (My Employer, NGOs, Business, Government, Media), trust in one’s employer remains the most robust. Furthermore, more people than ever (76%) say that CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it and 71% of employees agree that it’s critically important for their CEO to respond to challenging times.

Not all CEOs, however, are prepared to meet this new set of expectations—and that’s something that ought to keep boards up at night. If your company’s top leader is ill-prepared to meet new expectations in this new, uncertain climate, all eyes will be on the board, and on the oversight it did or did not provide.  

Based on RHR’s years of experience in leading change and what we know about the behaviors of those facing times of uncertainty, we have put together our insights regarding the specific challenges your CEO may be currently facing. We offer these four key concepts to help your CEO think of his or her role in leading people during times of uncertainty: Inform, Connect, Guide, and Unite.

1. Inform

As people struggle to make sense of the evolving uncertainty around them and what it means for them and their employer, they are particularly hungry for information and analysis. For this reason, you may find that they are most open to frequent and ongoing communication efforts. Authenticity is of primary importance here. Leaders must candidly acknowledge the downsides and the unknowns the company is facing. This will create credibility when painting a picture of their organization’s strengths and encouraging people to focus on the solid fundamentals. Most importantly, it is the leader’s job to help people make sense of the changing conditions, anticipate the likely scenarios ahead, and give them the tools to help them make up their own minds about how to best deal with these situations.

Tip for the CEO: Communicate early and frequently. The risk of overcommunicating is far less important than risking appearing out of touch with the current reality. Embrace humility and tell the truth; overpromising is only likely to backfire.

2. Connect

As evidenced by Edelman’s research, it is important for CEOs to generate a feeling of trust with employees. This will not happen if their communications appear remote or artificial. People need to feel a personal presence and connection. Senior executives who reach out to their employees and foster warmth and support will be seen as a credible source of reassurance and information.

One way to do so is for leaders need to acknowledge that they, too, are affected by the uncertainty in the world around them. Admitting it is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it signals that they are in touch with their own feelings and with others as fellow human beings.

Tip for the CEO: In times of change and uncertainty, give people opportunities to safely express their emotions. Reach out to employees on a personal basis. Get out of your office and encourage others to do the same. News of this will spread and positively affect the overall culture.

3. Guide

More than at any other time, during periods of uncertainty people want leaders who are comfortable giving direction on what to do and what not to do. However, inconsiderate or premature calls to “Put this behind us” and “Get back to work” will be counterproductive. Talking about the long-term visions and strategies of the company will not be effective when people are bracing for further bad news, or emotionally recovering from previous disclosures.

Your CEO may find it beneficial to start with more basic elements. The first step is to provide clear guidance on business-critical priorities that everyone can rally around and contribute to. As those concerns are being addressed, the CEO should invite people to think of the unique skills and qualities that have kept them in business with their internal or external customers. How can they leverage those and make a difference to others who are dealing with the same issues?

Tip for the CEO: Give steady guidance. Focus on the concrete steps on which all employees can align. Empower them to be part of the solution within that framework. Patiently hammer your message—its stability may be as important as its content.

4. Unite

Turbulent times remind us of the importance of human community. People value it and increasingly see their place of employment as a valid arena to experience that connection. They need to rally behind those things that bind them together. Leaders can pull their employees closer to the company by reinforcing what makes them a unique group. Chief executives can help crystallize these feelings to energize a group toward joint action. You may find that actively dealing with adversity will actually enhance a sense of togetherness and resilience as a community. The leader who taps into aspects of who people are and how they function sends a strong message in times of uncertainty: “What we’re doing now validates what we’ve always done; we can adapt to change and still be true to who we are.”

Tip for the CEO: Celebrate who you are as a business community. Emphasize connectedness to your industry, your company, your customers and one another.

The combination of uncertain times and the trust that people place in their employer presents a unique opportunity to reimagine the CEO’s potential for influence to include not only the purely transactional role of management, but also the more personally engaged role of leadership. Those who do so will reap the rewards of a loyal group of people committed to the success of their company and connected to the world around them.

Guy Beaudin
Dr. Guy Beaudin is a senior partner at RHR International responsible for the firm's business development and marketing activities. He is a trusted advisor to CEOs, boards of directors, and senior executive teams across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.