Superhuman or a super human? Leading through uncertainty

Leading through uncertainty is not a new topic, rather one that many leaders had on their list for future learning. Many of us though may not feel ready for the future to have arrived so suddenly. The rapid changes COVID-19 is bringing spikes anxiety and fear. It is uniquely scary.

How can we be authentic in our response and help our people thrive? How can we make anxiety a force for good?

Reactions to fear widely vary and for many change day to day. When I speak with my co-workers, some, for example, are worried by family on the other side of the world, unsure how they can help, unable to focus and get work done. By contrast some are focused on the future and excited by the innovations and culture shift that can emerge from this crisis.  Many of us are only starting to realise the extent of what is unfolding and the deep impact on individuals, companies and society at large.

It’s not easy to know to what extent we should be worried. Fear is natural. It is a survival mechanism. But we can be too anxious or not anxious enough. If we are too anxious we experience paralysis. If we are not anxious enough we might not act when we should. The space in between is where a sense of urgency and intensity compels us to thoughtful action. So how do we find the right place?

Acknowledge anxiety

When we acknowledge and label ‘anxiety’, our whole system calms down. This is important now more than ever as we need a calm presence to consider and make meaning of the turbulence around us. As a leader that means we need to become more self-aware. If we suppress feelings of anxiety, we pay the price later. If we ruminate in frustration and defeat, we become dysfunctional and helpless. We must acknowledge our anxious feelings, understand them, and then let them go, moving our attention to something more constructive.

It may help to reflect on questions such as:

  • How am I going at the moment?
  • What am I fearful of?
  • What do I need to be more confident?
  • How do I recharge?

Then, in your role as leader, share what is on your mind with others and listen to others intently and without judgement. Try not to fall into the trap of thinking that leaders are supposed to know all the answers. Or the belief that showing vulnerability is a weakness that leads to others feeling more uncertain. The opposite is usually the case.

People connect when they know they are not alone in their fear and when they sense there is no guilt or shame attached to being fearful. Leaders can encourage and empower this vulnerability by demonstrating it in themselves.

Create agency

Once you have named the emotion and established connection, it is important to create agency – to take charge. When we are anxious, we anticipate a gap between the threat and our capacity to address it. To overcome the anxiety we need to reduce the threat and increase our resources to deal with it, at the same time.

For instance, we can reduce the threat of catching a virus by distancing ourselves physically. We can also increase our perceived resources to deal with the uncertainty by creating an inner sense of determination, gratefulness or connection.

In our role as leader we can facilitate social support and encourage others to feel cared about. And the best thing is that it goes both ways. If we mobilise compassion for others, we feel calmer ourselves. We can also help others take charge by sharing what works for us and pointing people toward useful tools and resources. What you do to feel calmer differs for everyone; for me, I am managing my anxieties by practicing yoga, listening to podcasts and playing with my kids.

Act with a plan

Plans are good. If you know you need to connect with others, then be specific about next steps. Who will you have a video call with and when? More is better generally.  If you are keen to stay across the latest developments in the outside world, set times aside during the day when you will consciously inform yourself via a reliable source.

In your role as leader be clear what is important for you to do more or less of. How will you connect with your team? How will you get their feedback on how things are tracking? How will you create a sense of fun?

As I was leaving the office last Friday, there was laughter coming out of the kitchen where a team had gathered together for a drink, distancing themselves physically whilst simultaneously connecting socially. Few sensed that being together like this would seem such a distant memory only a week later. However it is important and good for your own and your team’s wellbeing to enjoy yourself with others. Which form will this take for you?

At the moment it can feel like we need to be superhuman. But really all that is required is to be a super human.

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