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Leading Organizations In Uncertain Times

September 29, 2020
Kathy Bishop
Lighthouse photo by Gaia Armellin on Unsplash

Lighthouse Photo by Gaia Armellin on Unsplash

Leaders are faced with exponential uncertainty and complexity as exemplified by the current global pandemic.  This means that many decisions have to be made without having all the information since the data are constantly emerging.  COVID-19 intensifies the need to consider health and safety, including mental health for employees and establishing new norms in response to mandatory social distancing protocols and a stay-at-home/online workforce. Many leaders are wondering how to make decisions that take into account both current needs and long-term impact in an unknown future. The answer lies within leadership as a way of being not just doing, moving between vision and task, and real collaboration. 

Leadership As A Way Of Being Not Just Doing

The pandemic offers a unique and publicly visible context within which to consider what is required of positional leaders in the face of critical needs to succeed. We have witnessed both outstanding and destructive leadership on the world stage. For outstanding leadership, think Dr. Bonnie Henry locally and New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern internationally. Both of these leaders show up with a sense of purpose, clear values and capabilities.  

Leaders who have a sense of purpose, clear values and capabilities are the ones who are making a positive difference in the world. Often though, people who are proficient in their jobs are thrust into positional roles for which they are expected to be leaders. Leaders, of course, need to be technically capable, but more than that they need to have capabilities that are people-focused and values centred. They need to know how to work with people in a way that is trustworthy, inspiring, collaborative, and can foster cultural innovation. Working with values and having an overall values framework offers ways for organizational leaders to be able to move through the daily demands as they arise. Check out other related blog posts: Leadership Matters Now More Than Ever And Yet What Is Leadership? and Let's Get Real About Values!!

Moving Between Vision And Task

Aligning personal and organizational purpose and strong values along with goal-driven action can offer a beacon and anchor in times of uncertainty. Leaders can draw strength from the Stockdale Paradox. As discussed by Collins (2001), the Stockdale Paradox was named after Admiral Jim Stockdale who was held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Vietnam for 8 years. Despite living daily with the uncertainty of ever getting out, he continued to lead by fighting against his captors and helping soldiers survive (pp. 83-84). The Stockdale Paradox holds that “you must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of difficulties, and you must also confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be” (p. 86). Having faith and dealing with facts is a way of having a focus on both vision and task. Heifetz and Linksy (2009) speak to this as moving from the dance floor to the balcony. On the dance floor you act, then you go to the balcony to assess the results and reassess the plan, to return to the dance floor and act again (p. 73). Inherent in the metaphor of a dance floor is the notion of movement with others. The leader is not alone but one within the whole dance. 

Engaging In Real Collaboration

If people did not believe before how interconnected we all are on the planet, then COVID-19 drives it home. I was connecting with my colleagues Vic Shewchuk and Marcy Strong on how collaboration has become the new buzz word and how often collaboration is actually coordination. A manager gathers people together only to then direct them in tasks for completion.  Part of the challenge of this coordination-masquerading-as-collaboration is that leaders need to understand that values do not act in isolation and that specific supporting values need to be in place before collaboration is even possible (See Barrett, 2017; Hall, 1994). Furthermore, Kaats and Opheij (2014) identified four factors for successful collaboration to be: effective organizational structure, sufficient participation, synergy and a shared sense of purpose, and clear agreements (p. 52). These factors when enacted and aligned with intentional and well-integrated values can act as touchpoints for leading in uncertain times.


Barrett, R. (2017). The values-driven organization. Cultural health and employee well being as a pathway to sustainable performance. (2nd Edition). Routledge.

Collins, J. (2001) Good to great: Why some companies make the leap and others do not. Harper-Collins.

Hall, B. (1994). Values shift: A guide for personal and organizational transformation. Twin Lights.

Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership. Harvard Business Press.

Kaats, E. & Opheij, W. (2014). Creating conditions for promising collaboration: Alliances, networks, chains, strategic partnerships Springer.