4 key tenets for leading through ambiguity

COVID-19 is teaching organizations to operate in new and unfamiliar ways.


When one thinks of leadership, words like “strong,” “visionary,” “decisive,” “confident” and “success” come to mind.

However, leading is more art than science as it entails both an intellectual and emotional component to sustain interest and direct behavior. As the pandemic unfolded, a whole new model of leadership came into view—one that placed a different set of characteristics at the forefront.

Among the words leaders are learning to focus on now:


1. Empathy – engaging with people on a human level

2. Listening – avoid being insulated from emerging issues

3. Agility – pivoting quickly as circumstances dictate

4. Flexibility – considering multiple options

5. Interpretation – assessing the present and shaping the future

6. Collaborative judgment – fluid decision-making encompassing multiple inputs

7. Communications – frequent, clear, concise, and contextual

8. Mentorship – assisting people at different levels of the organization to develop further

The key to leading today begins with your narrative about your values, purpose and the shifting environment enveloping society and business. The narrative should intrinsically tie-in to your business and share a distinct point-of-view internally and externally. Most important, it must chart a course forward when the situation is continually changing. Where management focuses on the “how”, leadership is about the “why,” giving context to the operations found in other parts of the organization.

Measuring and employing an effective leadership approach requires going beyond the traditional emphasis on outputs and penetration of messages. While the accessibility and regularity of messages is critical, the desired outcome—behavior change—requires reaching the hearts and minds of employees which must be gauged through qualitative as well as quantitative measures.

The goal of leadership in an ambiguous environment is not to “sell” the business strategy (a daunting task that invites disengagement) but rather to create an environment where employees “discover” where they are, where the company is going, and how they fit into the organizational story and can move accordingly.


Key tenets for leaders today

  1. Define goals. It is difficult to measure and encourage leadership actions in a shifting world if the individual does not understand what he/she is being asked to accomplish. Measurable goals (such as increasing engagement scores, holding regular manager roundtables, developing a strategic narrative) should be part of annual performance expectations, and given similar weight as other metrics. Siemens developed a Leadership Framework that measures people on 18 specific areas, most focused on communications.


  1. Be transparent. Much of what a leader communicates is not in the form of what they say directly to employees. It is through what employees see each day through leader’s actions and activities. However, employees in different parts of the company often don’t have regular interactions with leaders, or only see parts of the story and never receive the full context. By providing periodic reports or access to strategic activities, as well as sharing feedback on strengths and weaknesses and what is being done to address them, leaders help offer transparency to employees.


  1. Encourage debate. Leadership is not only about what leaders say, it is also about what they listen to from others. Effective leaders demand reports pm the status of communications activities in the company, and seek counsel on ongoing strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.


  1. Make time for face-to-face connection. Never ever substitute face-to-face communication with social media.  Social media should be a complement only. Despite advances in communications technologies, research shows in-person communications still delivers more meaning, particularly around issues involving emotion. Leaders should make time regularly to speak to employees across the organization about what is on their minds. These discussions should not focus on what employees want to hear, but rather ask: What they are hearing inside and outside the company? What do they see as challenges and opportunities?

Effectively leading in a non-linear world is about self-awareness and recognizing that, in a digital environment, information is ubiquitous.  As such, a leader competes with numerous opinions and perspectives on everything from strategy to personnel or investments.

How well he/she responds and moves in such unclear times will ultimately determine success.


A member of The Plank Center Board, Gary F. Grates is a Principal at Real Chemistry, a global health innovation company.  He has over 30 years’ experience in corporate, change, employee, crisis, and C-Suite communications.


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