Leadership lessons for uncertain times

When the world around them is getting increasingly uncertain, what tactics and behaviours can leaders adopt to support their teams and achieve their objectives? Professor Zahir Irani looks at what civil service leaders can learn from the private sector about leading in volatile times

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If there's one thing everyone can agree on about the future of the UK, it's that the only real certainty is uncertainty. 

For an organisation used to working against the backdrop of the consistency and stability of a political system, regardless of who is in power, the upheaval and lack of clarity of Brexit is unsettling for every department and all levels of people.

Business and management thinkers have been talking about our "VUCA world" for some time – referring to an environment filled with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. It’s an acronym that came from the US military, used by perplexed leaders in response to the relentless challenges posed by operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, but increasingly used in management speak as a reflection of the extremity of the degree of changes being faced and, in many respects, a lack of control.


Service leaders need to get used to the idea, and to look at what behaviours and tactics are best adopted to deal with a constantly shifting and unreliable environment. Brexit can’t be an excuse for a lack of direction, a fall-off in people management and a pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness that impacts our own and departments level of productivity; even if we are operating over shrinking timelines.

Facing up to complexity – and just the sheer mess of things – is something that senior business leaders have had to get used to in the past decade. They’ve spent years learning how to gain more control and influence over processes, only to find that the more senior they are, the more woolly and intangible their role becomes: responsible for vision and values, for moving an organisation forward into what is often seen as a void with no light to navigate through.

There are, however, lessons here for dealing with the ongoing Brexit upheaval and seeking to reach a new form of stability that can act as an anchor.

  • As a leader, you are your own "brand" in terms of representing authority in general, but also for visibly demonstrating you are in charge of future direction, a mover, shaker and influencer. That there’s still a clarity of intention and purpose, whatever the challenges of the current situation. You need to look the part but always stay true to your values and principles as these define you and your purpose.
  • It’s tempting to hide behind the uncertainty, behind the idea that everyone needs to "wait and see", but leaders need to keep on communicating whatever they know as much as possible, as long as there is some level of evidence behind it. Listening, and being seen to be listening, is equally important – as is visibility, which will directly influence levels of confidence. There is always "first mover" advantage in today’s information society, so always look for the opportunity and balance against risk.
  • Keep focused. Don’t be distracted by not knowing in detail what is to come, there are fundamentals in process and outcome that your team as a whole still expect, and can serve as an important form of cohesion and direction in themselves. Uncertainty creates opportunity and those that seek it out and successfully navigate around the pitfalls will be remembered when stability returns.
  • There’s a need for greater flexibility, to avoid the traps of relentless positivity to compensate uncertainty. That means being more accepting of negative events and critical voices, not seeing them as something to be hidden away from view but as part of the organisation’s journey; it doesn’t mean accepting poor performance because of the sense of being in limbo, while everyone is "watching and waiting". There’s a job still to be done and done well.
  • See this as an opportunity to learn on the job: rarely has there been such far-reaching political, social and economic uncertainty. There is not going to be a simple answer to anything, so don’t look for one. Instead, "game" everything, look for causality, influencers, and effect, both intended and unintended.
  • Times of disruption also create new opportunities for growing networks. People are knocked out of the groove of usual routines and are looking for new support and new perspectives. Seek out and join new alliances and create them if you can’t find them. Get out there and meet new people and re-establish or re-invigorate existing relationships with like-minded and diverse world views as now is not a time to seek shelter with a one-world perspective.
  • Ensure you’re still able to demonstrate delivery. Collaboration is a valuable way of doing this – finding new ways of building bridges, to demonstrate your abilities, aptitude and skills. See this as a long job interview: instead of having found the opportunity, go and look for it.

Read the most recent articles written by Professor Zahir Irani - Relationships matter – and other top tips for civil servants and academics working together

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