Leadership in Times of Uncertainty
In a busy webinar attended by a global audience of around 100 people, including participants in Scandinavia, Austria, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, South Africa, Trinidad and Chile, Dr Jean-Anne Stewart, Programme Director for Henley Business School’s MA Leadership discussed some of the issues facing today’s leaders and how they can better prepare for future challenges.
Business-people and politicians have always faced real challenges and constant change, but the unprecedented pace of change and uncertainty is exerting exceptional pressures on today’s leaders. These pressures are driven by external factors over which they have little or no influence, including:
- different styles of competition (e.g. online retailing)
- more, new and different stakeholders
- customers who are more willing to change suppliers
- changes to economic trade deals
- exponential levels of data and analytics
- environmental impacts and climate change
- requirements to act ethically and responsibly, increasingly across geographical and cultural divides
- legislative changes
Add to that the internal changes, such as dealing with a more diverse workforce, the desire to achieve a better work–life balance and the need to deal with conflict situations, and it’s no surprise that the task can be overwhelming for many leaders.
In times of such unprecedented uncertainty, some employees will crave and appreciate clear direction, while others may revel in the opportunity to step up and demonstrate that they have the capability to help create innovative solutions.
Only by really getting to know your team can you manage them accordingly, and Jean-Anne referred to various profiling tools that can be helpful in this respect.
As Jean-Anne asserted, sometimes the best action is to wait and see, thus obviating the risk of ‘stepping off the cliff’. She illustrated this point using the example of Gene Kranz, the lead flight director of the Apollo 13 mission, during which he remained calm, despite the obvious anxiety.
In any event, clear communication, explaining why you’re taking action – or not – is key.
Referencing the model developed by Professor Keith Grint (see Figure 1), Jean-Anne described ‘wicked problems’ – those real and potential situations that have no known solutions. In these cases, she highlighted the need to integrate experienced team members, and to engage and set goals in order to map out strategies for multiple scenarios. Often it can mean resorting to finding the least-worst solutions.
Figure 1: Organisational context, problems and puzzles
(Grint, 2009 based on Rittel & Webber, 1973)
Webinar participants were then asked to suggest situations that they were currently encountering. Jean-Anne responded to several of the many scenarios, including maintaining values, cross-cultural working and defining the balance between team working and leadership from the front.
Citing several high-profile examples of poor leadership, Jean-Anne suggested that two critical elements of effective leadership are:
- communication – bringing colleagues together, sharing the challenge and listening
- action learning – taking a ‘comrades in adversity’ approach
Recent research at Henley has provided indisputable evidence that the rate of change is accelerating, and that technology is a major challenge.
In response, Henley has worked with an advisory group comprising many diverse organisations over several years to develop a meaningful programme for its MA Leadership. The programme was launched in 2016 and the first cohort has just graduated.
Four cohorts are now running, including the CMI Level 7 Senior Leaders Degree Apprenticeship Programme.
Also influenced by the Centre for Creative Leadership, the programme is built around their 70:20:10 framework model:
- 70% challenging workplace assignments, including action learning
- 20% developmental relationships, including coaching and mentoring
- 10% books and training courses
Henley is now delivering a three-stage programme across all sectors, as outlined in Figure 3. Feedback from participants and their colleagues has reported clear and positive signs of behavioural change and organisational improvement, as participants benefit from:
- critical-thinking and analytical skills
- problem solving, peer groups and action learning
- practical assignments, linked to participants’ individual and organisational needs
- developing skills in influencing teams and stakeholders
- evidence and research
Figure 2: Henley’s MA Leadership three-stage programme structure
It is clear that change will continue, and the organisations with the people who are best prepared to lead will have a real competitive advantage.
Jean-Anne concluded her webinar with a quote from Winston Churchill: ‘The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.’
Perhaps ‘the optimists’ should be replaced by ‘great leadership’.