The 7 C’s for Leading In Times Of Uncertainty

Executives from various industries are racing to claim a title in these VUCA times: C-levels from the energy and chemicals industries claim to be in the biggest transformation phase and face the biggest uncertainty for themselves, their people, their operating model — basically everything. At the same time, top-level leaders from banking, retail, manufacturing and many other industries are convinced that they find themselves at the peak of the unknown, incomparable to other industries. It’s hard to judge which industry as of today, given the global economic and health challenges, deserves the trophy of “Most Uncertainty.”

They all face the same troubles — but not all have the right leaders to solve them. The beauty of volatile, uncertain times is sometimes hard to find, especially for leaders since industrial age mindsets and leadership approaches work only partially, if at all. Therefore, a leadership transition is also necessary in these transformative times.

Seven Tips To Help Navigate Uncertainty

Based on discussions and joint projects with hundreds of my clients across the globe from startups to corporate executives, there is always a combination of the same seven things that make a difference in navigating uncertainty successfully.

1. Core Values

If the future is unclear and unpredictable based on old planning models, the only thing leaders can rely on is their history and their experience, as well as the core values that are their foundation and that serve as the glue for their organization as well. Core values and a succinct purpose provide guidance and direction when even well-defined plans don’t help much anymore.

2. Communication

It’s no surprise that talking to people is more essential in difficult times. Going with Watzlawick’s famous quote of “you cannot not communicate,” leaders need to sharpen their awareness on what they communicate and which channel they use for which target audience. For example, sometimes taking time for one-on-one conversation turns out to be the most rewarding and success-inspiring measure a leader can do. Keep in mind what message you as a leader may send when you say nothing at all.

3. Cluelessness

Leaders need to be able to say a short but very important sentence: “I don’t know.” Without this awareness, leaders remain in solution mode. Why? Because they’ve been rewarded and promoted over the last decades for finding solutions based on their experience, sometimes pretending to know even if they didn’t. The nature of holding leadership is to go first and define the route due to their own knowledge and experience. But in times of uncertainty, telling doesn’t get you or the organization very far. Thus, learning to say “I don’t know,” can shift a leader’s mindset from delegating to listening to find a solution.

4. Captain

To cut through the chaos and focus themselves as well as their team members on the true priorities, leaders should try to zoom out and paint a big picture that everybody understands and can relate to. Sometimes getting too “in the weeds” can make it difficult to broaden your perspective, so taking a moment to back away from the nitty-gritty issues could make all the difference.

5. Complexity

Handling complex problems is different than handling complicated ones. Most leaders solve complicated problems with a “more” mentality: resources, money, time, production capacity or some combination of these. But complex business challenges have constantly changing variables, making it even harder to pin down and evaluate. The first step to leading through complexity is awareness of whether the challenge is indeed complex. Once a leader can answer that, it’s important to switch to an “I can manage this” mindset. Making room for open minds and common sense will get you closer to solving a complex problem than the “more” mentality.

6. Crawl

When everything feels like it’s accelerating, it’s important to slow down and take a breath. It might sound counterintuitive to take the time to reflect — for leaders, their direct reports and individual team members — while the calendars and meeting schedules are piling up to unseen heights. But reflecting brings back clarity and allows everyone to recharge and address the problem with fresh minds.

7. Company

Last but not least, there is one thing that leaders should never, especially in uncertain times, forget to remember: Good company gets you further. Especially in volatile times, leaders shouldn’t play superhero and try to solve everything by themselves. Lean on your peers and find a good verbal sparring partner you can bounce ideas off of and count on in darker days. Remember, when things work out well despite uncertainty, it’s the exact same company that will help you celebrate success.

Has leadership been an easier task in the past? Probably not. Will leadership be easier in the future? Also unlikely. The only thing that remains constant is that the human skills in our leaders are being called on more and more, and we need to acknowledge this and then act accordingly — as leaders for our own healthy, high performance but also as servant leaders, caring for all the people we feel responsible for.

(published on / Nov 2021 /

Can You Lead the Age of Agile?

In this age of agile, all companies seem to be embarking on their digital transformation journey. When I talk to clients on C-level, most of them proudly present their latest automation-project and they talk about starting to look at AI or big data analytics stuff. Many still proudly present their industry 4.0 project they are doing in the production plant right now….but only a handful are truly aware of the importance to prepare their talents with equal attention and effort for the digital change. 

The digital transformation journey with all its corresponding technologies are difficult for most people who grew up and were educated in an industrial-age-type setting. There are 2 dimensions that can be observed these days, where great leaders have an eye on whilst bad leaders just ignore them successfully.

The first dimension is Vision and Clarity: being at the starting line of the digital era, it’s time to focus less on the organization’s but finally more on the individual talent’s vision and clarity. When organizations look at their market and their customer avatars, it’s crystal clear to address their needs and pains on an almost individual level. You would never say “the people in the Chicago metropolitan area all need xyz”. Rather you would cluster them in different buying groups according to their fears, frustrations, wants and desires. But inside the organization itself, we barely look at the perspective and the vision for each individual but we tend to “just” define the big picture on an organizational level and treat all employees – regardless of function, hierarchy, educational and cultural background – more or less the same. We don’t break down the big picture vision into their personal north star!

The second dimension is on mindset: to succeed in the digital buzz, we need to have an entrepreneurial mindset and most importantly a growth mindset. The challenge though is, that we are neither used to nor trained for that! Just taking my daughter as the perfect example here: she is in primary school and every time she gets an exam graded, she has 1 mistake, she never has 19 out of 20 right. So she’s been trained in early days on a fixed mindset but we need talents with a growth mindset, willing to learn and willing to get familiar with all the new technologies over the course of their life and career. 

So which skills do successful leaders need in order to navigate the organization of the future and lead the age of agile?

One would assume the educational system, especially in the western world, should equip us with the needed skills to succeed in our business world. But it doesn’t. Even worse, the skills needed to succeed in the organization of the future are so basic, that we all initially had them, we were born with them, but over the course of our “education” we were taught how to get rid of them. So let’s have a joint look at the top 5 skills needed to lead in the age of agile 

1) visioning – we need to understand that we do not derive from the past what will happen in the future but being able to construct some new future on a canvas and focus your mind on that. Everything starts with a thought but hardly anyone is strong enough to understand the power of that, nor turn that thought into words and these words into a first draft of a vision. And this visioning work has to be done on company, team and individual level.

2) growth mindset – we need to train ourselves, our kids and our co-workers on a growth mindset according to Carol Dweck. It’s about being willing and hungry to learn and to see a challenge as an opportunity to grow, rather than a judgement about yourself. Some refer to this skill as the often-quoted “trial-and-error” or “fail-fast-and-fail-forward” skill

3) collaborative problem solving – we need to learn strategies how to solve problems, how to approach them from different angles and how to solve them collectively with others. I teach at an Austrian university and every time I ask my students to collectively solve the exam questions they are absolutely puzzled – and sometimes they struggle more with the challenge of how to collaborate successfully than with the question itself! 

4) agile way of working – The age of agile means acknowledging that most of us were raised and trained in an order-and-command type of world where we were given a task or responsibility over a process and were expected to stick to the rules, the handbook, the process guidelines. Now it’s time to be incentivized not for 100% compliance but for challenging the status quo, for adopting quickly, for short development cycles, for agile way of working, for changing our mind and procedures if the market changes. This is what will make or break the team success in the digital transformation.

5) business model thinking – we need to foster the skill of thinking like an entrepreneur, constantly looking at what’s going on from a business model perspective and potentially identify new ideas quickly. Many R&D people or innovation department people are used to this type of thinking, but it will be critical that it is installed in every department – from HR to sourcing and all the way to finance as well. 

Being in a leadership position and guiding teams or entire organizations always came along with a high level of responsibility and with having a certain skill set. It’s not any different for the Age of Agile, apart from the fact that current leaders are not used to the tools, nor have they learned the right skills at school. So it’s time now for the truly great leaders who understand how to use their full people potential and who are brave enough to focus on the human dimension rather than the technology.