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Leading During Change And Uncertainty

There is an old adage in leadership circles that “the best test for whether a leader is exceptional is how they handle a crisis.” Unfortunately, leading during crises is tricky. A crisis situation presents a ton of competing tensions. The best leaders manage these times of uncertainty by embracing paradoxical leadership—behaviors that manage seemingly competing, yet interrelated demands. 

Outlined below are four paradoxes that can pop up during times of change. To help practicing managers understand how best to flex their “paradoxical leadership” potential, I offer some examples specific to the coronavirus pandemic. For managers, the outbreak was complex and confusing to overcome, making it a textbook opportunity to evaluate how best to lead during uncertain times.

Balancing Speed and Accuracy

When a crisis hits, team members want to know what’s going on and what the plan of action is. For example, as the pandemic spread across the U.S., leaders were struggling to make big decisions because the situation was constantly changing. They had to make big decisions, such as travel restrictions, remote work policies, and preemptive cost-cutting solutions.

The challenge for leaders is balancing the need to communicate with team members in a timely manner, yet provide information that is accurate and actually helpful. When leaders wait too long to communicate critical messages, employees fill the void with their own assumptions, and often lose faith in their leader’s ability. But when business leaders provide half-baked, unclear, or misinformed messages to their employees, it makes it that much harder to overcome the challenges as a team.

Leaders should proactively consider varying courses of action, ensure that they are in-the-know as critical information surfaces, and then immediately focus their attention on offering timely decision-making and direction, but never at the expense of accuracy.

Balancing Uncertainty and Clarity

Crises are unfortunate in that they cut to the core of a need we all have: security. Although a leadership team might feel compelled to reassure their employees that everything is going to be fine during difficult times, in reality, they can’t make that promise.

Making statements, for example, about when pre-pandemic policies will go back into effect may have satisfied employees’ immediate concerns, but was a guess at best. What a leader can do is communicate what exactly they are doing to manage the uncertainty. This, in and of itself, is a way to help people feel more secure. For example, leaders should have been outlining who they are working with or talking to in order to have an evidence-based recommendation for how to overcome each step of the outbreak.

Balancing Details and the Big Picture

Crises tend to have varying levels of uncertainty and a wide variety of implications. Specific to the pandemic, it affected individuals’ health and livelihood, organizations’ short-term profitability and long-term survival, and society’s overall health and economic stability. 

Leaders must carefully explain to employees why and how their choices affect these important and connected systems.

It’s a mistake to only explain to employees how the organization’s decisions affect them individually. For example, it should have been clear that the reason employees were being encouraged to work remotely had just as much to do with contributing to the societal-level initiative to “flatten the curve” as it did with employees’ personal health.

Balancing the Past and the Present

When the coronavirus was finally under control, lots of us stopped working 100% remotely, customers re-scheduled their canceled meetings, and supply chains eventually caught up. This was actually the best opportunity to evaluate crisis leadership. We tend to think of crisis leadership as an in-the-moment phenomenon. But this is only partially true.

When the dust clears, everyone will have plenty of time to critique the extent to which their leader was prepared to manage the crisis. It will be at this stage where great leaders admit their mistakes and create a plan for going forward, while weak leaders will spend so much time covering their tracks or justifying their decisions that they will squander the opportunity to re-group.

Crises, by definition, are complicated and unpredictable. Mistakes are inevitable. Effective leaders embrace the mistakes of the past, yet have a clear plan for the future.

Crisis Leadership Is About Balancing Paradox

Leading a crisis is an imperfect balancing act. The change and uncertainty that teams will face is loaded with paradox. That’s why we need leaders that can embrace these tips in order to manage difficult situations.

Instead of judging your crisis leadership skills on whether or not you did one thing perfectly (e.g., speed), consider evaluating whether you simultaneously did two things well (e.g., speed and accuracy). And instead of judging yourself on whether or not your decisions where “perfect,” it might instead be helpful to evaluate whether the way you communicated about your decisions included room to correct mistakes and acknowledge the complex realities of the situation.

By definition, it’s impossible to “solve” paradoxes. All you can really do is acknowledge them and then do your best to keep afloat.

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About Dr. Scott Dust

Scott Dust, Ph.D. is the Fealy Family Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship at the Carl H. Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati. Scott is also the Chief Research Officer at Cloverleaf, an HR-tech platform that facilitates coaching insights for everyone. Scott earned his Ph.D. in Management and Organizational Behavior at the LeBow College of Business, Drexel University, and his B.S. and M.B.A. from the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. His primary areas of research are leadership, leader-follower relationships, and teams. His work has appeared in academic journals such as the Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Leadership Quarterly, and Human Relations, and he currently serves on the editorial review board of the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Group and Organization Management, and Journal of Social Psychology.

Dr. Scott Dust

Dr. Scott Dust

Scott Dust, Ph.D. is the Chief Research Officer at Cloverleaf, an HR-tech platform that facilitates coaching for everyone. Dr. Dust is also a Raymond E. Glos Associate Professor at the Farmer School of Business, Miami University. His research focuses on leadership and teams and has been published in over 30 peer-reviewed academic journals. Dr. Dust is also on the editorial review board of three journals, including the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Group and Organization Management, and the Journal of Social Psychology. He is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has a blog column at Psychology Today.