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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

5 Rules for Leading Through Uncertainty


A lot of my clients work in Washington, DC. They’re either executives in Federal agencies or executives in companies that do a lot of business with Federal agencies. Right now, they’re all talking about sequestration – that wonderful process in which Congress mandates across the board budget cuts without any guidance about how to implement those cuts.

You may not be paying a lot of attention to sequestration if you live and work in LA, for example, but to the folks in DC, it’s a big freaking deal. Just about everyone in and around Washington is trying to figure out what to do next. It’s a classic case of leaders having to lead through uncertainty. Even if you’re not dealing with the impact of sequestration, leading through uncertainty is worth thinking about. You may think that everything is crystal clear right now but chances are that’s going to change sooner or later. Probably sooner.

So, since leading through uncertainty is eventually a universal opportunity for leaders, I thought I’d offer five rules for how to do it more effectively. These rules are based on talking with a lot of clients over the past week who are either figuring out how to do it or who are watching in disbelief as their leaders fail at it.

Here, then, are five rules for leading through uncertainty:

1. Share what you know: People crave information when things are uncertain. Share what you know. Focus on the impact. Offer guidelines for decision making.

2. Say what you don’t know: Don’t fake your way through it. Your people have a sixth sense for when you’re doing that. Acknowledge what you don’t know. Call out what’s in your collective control and what’s not.

3. Cut the crap: If you have fifteen minutes worth of useful information, keep the conversation to fifteen minutes. Don’t expand it to an hour and fill up the remaining forty five minutes with platitudes that don’t do anyone any good. Think about it. If you were on the receiving end, how would you react to a lot of meaningless fluff? Your people are going to react the same way you would.

4. Ask for input: Don’t assume you have to make all the decisions yourself. The people who are closest to the action likely have a lot of good ideas about how to move forward. Ask them for their input and ideas.

5. Stay engaged: Don’t assume that one call does it all. Stay engaged with your organization. Keep sharing what you know when you know it and can share it. Keep asking for input. Nature abhors a vacuum and so do organizations. In the absence of clear and relevant communications from you and with you, people are going to fill the vacuum with stuff they’re making up. You don’t want that. Stay engaged.

What other rules work for you when you have to lead through uncertainty?

(Image via NagyDodo/Shutterstock.com)

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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