Learning to lead through uncertainty

by | Jun 28, 2016 | Blog

Business needs cohesion to deal with Brexit, says Cirrus CEO Dr Simon Hayward

In recent years, much has been written about our VUCA world, characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. ‘Agility’ has become a buzzword as leaders learn to deal with unexpected situations as swiftly and successfully as possible.

Despite uncertainty becoming the norm in recent years, the UK’s vote to leave the European Union has presented many leaders with one of the most unexpected situations they have ever faced. Research conducted last month by Jelf Employee Benefits found that 63% of employers had not even considered the impact Brexit might have, and further research last week found that 83% had no formal plan in place to deal with it. Even amongst those who had planned for a ‘leave’ vote, many have been surprised by its impact.

The government has yet to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, Britain’s formal notice to leave the EU, which would give the UK two years to negotiate withdrawal. Uncertainty over how soon this might happen has led to a degree of nervousness among UK-based businesses. Nearly two thirds of Institute of Directors members think Brexit will be bad for business and director general Simon Walker suggested that leaders “will be busy working out how they are going to adapt and succeed after the referendum result.”

CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn said we need “rapid clarity on who is making the decisions” and suggested the UK needs to get “calm and decisive leadership in place as soon as possible.” More calls for calm came from business secretary Sajid Javid, who warned companies not to panic.

Messages from prominent European leaders have been mixed. While German chancellor Angela Merkel said she would not push for an immediate withdrawal, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde has called for the UK and the EU to quell uncertainty over the implications of Britain’s vote by acting quickly and cohesively. Back home, Boris Johnson has asked Brexit voters to “build bridges” with Remain supporters who feel “loss and confusion”.

So, from confusion and uncertainty is emerging a desire for cohesion, connectedness – and clear leadership. What can business leaders do to engage and motivate employees with a future which, for many, is uncertain?

I mentioned agility earlier. We often think of agility as important in responding to immediate, short-term challenges. However, it’s even more important to embed the long-term capability to identify and respond quickly to emerging threats and challenges in a world with high levels of complexity and uncertainty.

Even out of the EU, most organisations will continue to operate in the context of globalisation and international interdependency, either directly or through their customers.  More than ever, this highlights the need to be nimble.

Being nimble and agile is not compatible with a tightly-controlled command and control style of leadership. When faced with a difficult challenge, it’s tempting to take control back to a small group at the centre of the organisation. However, more sustainable success will come by developing a more ‘connected’, shared model of leadership across the business.

The greater the complexity outside your business, the simpler it needs to be inside. The temptation is often to introduce a plethora of new systems and processes to deal with change. However, many successful organisations are choosing to simplify their ways of working as a way to increase agility and their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Ruthless prioritisation is a good way to start this process of simplification.  It creates clarity for yourself and others on what to focus on and, perhaps more importantly, what not to focus on, in order to enable action in times of complexity and uncertainty. Set clear priorities for the business and for your leadership team, so that everyone can then focus on doing fewer things better.  As more clarity emerges over the weeks and months ahead, increased cohesion and connectedness can help us to reach a successful outcome.

If you’d like to hear more about how Cirrus helps organisations to lead through uncertainty, or have some views to share, please email us or tweet @CirrusConnect.

 

 

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