Uncertainty: A Leader’s Greatest Challenge

A friend once sent me a gift that included this tantalizing quote from clergyman Robert Schuller: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you would not fail?” Definitely a question to spark the imagination. After rethinking my life, especially over the past two years, the question took me to leadership, because I believe that uncertainty is the biggest challenge facing leaders today.

How do you charge into the future with the kind of drive and passion that motivates others to follow when you have no sense for what that future might hold? It’s one thing to lead with the confidence of knowing, which was possible in the past. It’s quite another to lead with confidence when you’re pretty much blindfolded, as we have been since Covid-19 hit us and changed virtually everything. Today, leaders often don’t know what needs to be done, much less how to go about doing it.

In 2021, trying to manage uncertainty seems like an oxymoron and is stressful to even the most effective leaders. It requires the ability, and the courage, to think and behave out of the box. Here are some suggestions on how to develop that kind of confidence:

• Lead with integrity and compassion; integrity because it helps you do the right thing and compassion because you cannot always see the crosses your people are bearing.

• Embrace flexibility and accept that you don’t know everything—and don’t have to.

• Stay actively involved in the hiring process, surrounding yourself with people who have the skills, character, and personality to get the job done. The people you hire can make or break you and you need to be able to trust them.

• Focus on what’s next and delegate the day-to-day to the trustworthy people you’ve taken the time to hire.

• Communicate clearly and often. It is more important than ever, even if you are simply communicating that you don’t yet know what to do.

• Replace your fear of failure with curiosity, like you did when you were a child.

• Take risks, learn from them, and “fail forward.”

• Admit the challenges of managing uncertainly—that gives permission to others to do the same—and create strategies accordingly.

• Find an amazing, but small, group of individuals to serve as your mentors, people who enrich your life with learning and support.

• Find time to be at peace with yourself and with life. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings so that you can be at your best with the people who count on you for leadership.

The reality is that if you are a leader today, you are leading unprecedented change. Don’t occupy your mind with the past, eagerly jump into the future. Know that you won’t always have the answers, but that you are surrounded by the people and resources to figure them out. That should give you the confidence you need to succeed, in perhaps some surprising ways.


Kathleen Quinn VotawKathleen Quinn Votaw is Founder & CEO of TalenTrust, an Inc. 5000 company. Kathleen recently completed a Stanford Graduate School of Business program focused on strategy, innovation, and organizational design. She has received many awards, including the 2020 Vistage Worldwide Top Performer; 2020 Enterprising Women of the Year from Enterprising Women Magazine for her work to fuel lasting change in companies across the nation; and multiple achievement awards from Colorado Women’s Chamber, ColoradoBiz Magazine, and Denver Business Journal. Additionally, she is a renowned keynote speaker and author of Solve the People Puzzle: How High-growth Companies Attract & Retain Top Talent.

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