Leadership in Times of Uncertainty
One of the greatest challenges of institutional leadership during the present pandemic has involved the ever pending “other shoe” that never seems to drop. What comes next? How do you lead when the future remains so uncertain? What effect will the November elections have? When, if ever, will we gain control over the novel coronavirus? How fully will the economy recover? How will the pandemic change consumer patterns? How will our culture change? And the list of questions goes on.
We can never know for sure what will happen next. In truth, leadership always occurs in times of uncertainty. For that matter, I want to argue here that uncertainty is what makes leadership necessary in the first place. The main thing leaders provide is a vision to pursue, and that always involves more than just predicting what the future will bring; declaring a vision means deciding what future to build. People, and especially organizations, need leadership because without it, no one knows what to do. People and organizations can stumble along for years without meaningful direction, but they can never truly prosper that way. Virtually all personal and organizational successes depend on the role leaders at all organizational levels play in communicating a vision, creating the social architecture and work processes to carry out activities required by the vision, and gathering sufficient resources to make the vision a reality.
Without the miracle of vision, no truly transformative, future-building thing gets done, and vision does not declare itself. Whether one merely leads one’s own life or directs an organization, one has to step up and commit to a vision and declare a course of action. In times of greater-than-normal uncertainty, leadership undoubtedly takes more courage than it does in times of relative stability. On the other hand, the greater need for leadership in times of crisis may make people more receptive to a leader’s influence. Crisis provides the raw material for greatness. I remember Bill Clinton’s fretting that he would never become a great president because he had the reins of power during a time of great economic expansion and relative peace. I suppose every leader should prefer to have such a problem, but greatness usually rises out of successfully meeting great challenges.
Think of our greatest U.S. presidents: Washington, who founded the nation during and after the Revolution; Jefferson, who despite facing a crippling national debt in 1800, seized the opportunity of the Louisiana Purchase; Lincoln, who guided the country through Civil War; and Franklin Roosevelt, who led us through the Great Depression and World War II. Ronald Reagan presided over the end of a decade of runaway inflation, overcame a deep economic recession, and won the Cold War. In the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher turned the British economy around during her time as prime minister and restored her nation’s prestige in the world precisely because someone had to rise up and do it.
Speaking of Roosevelt, he famously declared: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Overcoming fear may not lead to greatness, but mere adequacy requires courage! On that level, I recently wrote a report to the executive committee of the board of directors here at Northwest. In that report, which they will receive later this month, I remind them of the threats I brought to their attention back in May. We faced grueling uncertainties at that time, but not a single one of the worst-case scenarios I called out became a reality. Not one. Had we shrunk back in fear, we would have done so for no good reason. Instead, we set a vision to provide a safe in-person environment this Fall, trimmed back our budgeted expenses to ensure financial stability, arranged for a line of credit to prepare for possible revenue shortfalls, worked out all the contingency plans we would need to deal with whatever realities might emerge, and set to work on research and planning to make changes that would enhance our success in the Fall of 2021 and beyond. Rather than giving up on our vision, we bore down on it and raised the stakes. The higher the stakes, the greater the potential reward. Our plans may fail, but we will never fail by planning. We can live with failure, but we cannot live with indecision.
What should today’s leaders do in the face of our current uncertainty? Give thanks for the opportunity to lead. Decide what future to build. Declare a vision. People will follow.