Leading through Uncertainty

Leading through uncertainty is the challenge of our times for leaders. It’s times like this that we all look to our leaders to restore certainty, to bring back equilibrium, stability and normality. We see their role as seeking out the facts, discovering the truth and taking action to make things happen. But that was before COVID-19 imposed itself upon us.

Because of the threat to many parts of our lives, especially our health, leaders have had to make decisions quickly and more often than not the information they needed to make those decisions was not there. They have had to act with the most current information and facts at hand only to discover later that there was information and facts they didn’t have at the time. If they had had them they would have made a different decision. They have then found themselves having to say something like: “In retrospect I would have made a different decision” or “In retrospect I could have handled this differently.”

We have seen many examples of this from leaders during this time. It wasn’t that they didn’t practise due diligence and therefore didn’t seek out the information they needed. It just wasn’t available. For example, the NSW government issued directives to aged care residential centres about the way they were to manage outbreaks of the virus within their facilities. They were not to be sent to hospital for a whole range of reasons. We then saw the very significant outbreak at Anglicare Newmarch and a large number of deaths that emerged from there. The CEO has recently said that in retrospect he would now send people to hospital when they contracted the virus. Yet he acted at the time on good medical advice and known facts. In contrast, and at a much later stage, and probably with the experience at Newmarch forefront in his mind, the CEO of an aged care facility in Rockhampton, when presented with its first positive case, immediately took action and “re-arranged” the entire residential centre as a way to keep their people safe.

While lockdown is easing, the crisis is by no means over, and leaders are going to be called upon to be agile in their decision-making in many situations for the foreseeable future. They often won’t have all the facts that give them confidence to act, but they may have to act without them. As I said above they may find out later that it would have been more helpful if they had acted differently.

What will be important is the way they respond when they discover they should have acted differently. Some, no doubt, will become defensive and try and justify themselves and blame others. The authentic leaders will engage their employees in seeking the best outcomes, being open, honest and transparent about the challenges involved and then make the best decision they have with the information, advice and opinions they have solicited. Even while, at a later stage, it may become obvious that deciding differently would have brought a better outcome, their openness, honest and transparency will earn them respect and trust.

What this unprecedented time has taught us is that facts are not always absolute and truth is a shifting reality. I have often used this quote, made more than 30 years ago, from Guba and Lincoln (1990:9). They said of truth that it is “nothing more than the best informed and most sophisticated construction currently available….always subject to reconstruction when more information or increased sophistication become available.”

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