Leadership and communications in times of acute uncertainty

Leadership and communications in times of acute uncertainty

Photo credit:  Katie Moum, Unsplash

Guest Blog by Nigel Lester, Executive Coach

Perhaps the coronavirus crisis is not the time for an optimist who views leadership as a privilege. Such privilege, however, comes with significant pressures at times of acute uncertainty. Vital decisions need to be made very quickly across a vast range of issues with incomplete and, quite possibly, conflicting data. This pressure is compounded when the people to whom the leader is responsible are stressed, scared and easily led to anger. Any crisis is a tough time to be a leader. Resilience and the ability to bounce back become even more important.

At times like these, there will be many critics who will use the crisis to further their own ends: often under the cloak of “being supportive” or “merely wanting to hold the leaders to account”. There will also be those who rewrite history to show that they, and they alone, predicted the course of the crisis with absolute certainty before anyone else.

The first lesson for leaders to recognise is that they are going to make mistakes. Furthermore, they are going to be criticised by people who have convinced themselves that they would have dealt with the problems perfectly if they had been listened to or given the opportunity to lead.

Leadership errors will include focusing on the wrong issues and prioritising the wrong criteria.  These errors are understandable and forgivable, providing the decisions were made in good faith. Added to these errors is the problem that most leaders almost always underestimate the difficulty of implementation, especially in any system where success is contingent on a chain of largely autonomous, but now highly dependent, operators.

What is not forgivable in leaders is any tendency to shut down dissenting voices and/or not consider alternative options to the core plan. Unfortunately, the risk of leaders behaving like this is magnified when critics are calling for certainty and immediate, permanent, ideal solutions. This is a crisis in which no such solutions exist. The danger of such pressure is that leaders react by defending their current position, rather than being open to new ideas which might require a change of course. Another temptation for leaders to resist is to cross the line between optimism and over-selling. Virtually all of us want optimistic leaders, but in the current environment over-selling, which comes so naturally to politicians, must be avoided.

There is no template or crisis management plan for the problems we are now facing, and leaders will have to propose policies that will almost certainly have contradictory and unintended consequences. This will lead to criticism and even derision from Monday morning quarterbacks, commentators and those who are looking to take the leader’s job. It is in moments like these that you will find out if you are a true leader or merely hold a leadership position. If you are lucky enough to be the former, then you will be able to make the best decisions you can and survive the criticism you will inevitably suffer.

In addition to problems caused by uncertainty, a further pressure on leaders during a crisis is the constraint that they should not respond angrily to the criticism heaped on them, however much they feel justified in so doing. Trying to keep people calm in this situation is almost as important as making the right decisions. For many leaders, this may be the hardest problem to solve. One of the most needed members of the leadership team may well be the person who convinces the team to think before they react and not to risk everything through one outburst, however tempting.

For those of us not in formal leadership roles, this is a time to show personal leadership. We are lucky enough to have a vibrant and aggressively questioning democratic process and media which like nothing more than sticking it to people in power. Not at all a bad thing. I wonder, however: does this aggression really help in times such as these?

We have all become expert virologists and mathematical modellers: much as during the Olympics we are experts on the finer points of dressage and gymnastics. Perhaps those of us who are not formal leaders and who often have only partial information could be a little humbler and recognise that our views might also be wrong.

To paraphrase a politician, “If you are still doing what you normally do, then you have not understood the gravity of the situation”. Perhaps the critics might adopt a methodology of persistent reasonableness. Gently but persistently asking for specific numbers, facts and explanations might be the best way to cut through the spin that too many leaders rely on when they are on the defensive.

Spinning and obfuscation is the natural refuge of too many organisations when things go wrong. This is understandable in a culture which wants its in-group errors to be forgiven, but offers no such forgiveness to its enemy out-groups, who are also often portrayed as morally bankrupt.  Is it possible that a change of approach by critics and commentators might just encourage more openness and less verbal deflection by the leaders?

Leaders have the additional problem of deciding how to pitch their crisis communications strategy to the public at large. As a group, we have widely different understandings of uncertainty and tolerance of risk. Some of us like to get all the bad news as fast as possible so that we can move on. Others prefer to be shielded from the worst possibilities in the hope that they may not happen.  To give a single coherent message to people with such diverse needs requires considerable skill and experience.

There is little doubt that our leaders have made, and will continue to make, mistakes. However, if we can show individual leadership and resilience in this crisis, it should encourage our leaders to be open to new ideas and to changing course when it is needed.

Trying to improve resilience to the pressures of leadership and isolation is hard. It is worth reviewing the advice of Ryan Ramsey*, the former captain of HMS Turbulent; especially his point about resolving conflicts as quickly as possible.

Finally, some consolation for true leaders.  When this is all over and you are looking back in ten years’ time, you will have forgotten the stress and upset and will realise that there was never a time when you felt more alive than when you were a leader under fire during a crisis. Leadership remains an amazing privilege, even more so in difficult times. 

More about Nigel Lester:

Nigel is the Managing Director of Devonshire Partners, a business and executive coaching consultancy he founded in 2003, originally as an executive search firm.  Prior to founding Devonshire Partners, Nigel spent a number of years in senior global leadership roles in the finance sector, including investment banking and asset management, successfully holding senior global roles with UBS and Dresdner Kleinwort Benson.

An actuary by training, he now uses his unique combination of analytical skills, lifelong experience and ongoing study of psychology to help those who want to change their world. Or as Nigel describes: “My career progression has been a transition from the mathematical to the psychological: from calculating odds to influencing outcomes.”


References and further reading:

*Coronavirus: Submarine captain Ryan Ramsey’s advice on social isolation:


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