Planning and leading in a time of uncertainty

28th January 2021

Have we ever in our lives been as uncertain as we are this January? How can we plan for our businesses when there is such uncertainty about what 2021 holds?

In the past, there have been wonderful years and dreadful years, but usually, we have a reasonably good map of the road ahead. That map includes how to deal with so-called “known unknowns” – those uncertainties we know about and for which we can prepare scenarios, like what the economy might do to the market, key staff leaving, new tech emerging, and what the competition might do.

But I think we may have lost confidence in the future. We began 2020 full of plans for a year of plenty, not imagining that a virus just appearing in a distant place called Wuhan would dominate the year so completely and destroy our plans. So now we fear that other unknown unknowns can assail us at any moment. By definition, we don’t know what they might be and trying to imagine them is stressful.

Psychologists tell us that uncertainty creates stress, inhibits creativity, and interferes with our ability to make good decisions. Our brains seek certainty, so uncertainty feeds populist causes as those with a definite (often false or over-simplified) version of events attract followers desperate for an explanation of the unknown – however fanciful.

A time like this one, leadership contribution is to be resolute in getting on with the daily business. Don’t underestimate how reassuring it is to see that the boss is calm and refusing to fall for weird theories on social media. We still need plans based on scenarios that review known best and worst cases. We still need to schedule regular checks of the vital signs in our businesses – cash flow, customer sentiment, product-market fit, competitor behaviour, supplier health, staff morale. It would be a disaster if uncertainty prevented us from planning for what we do know and can control, like rabbits caught staring at the headlights.

But we also need to be prepared for the unpredictable. This happens within ourselves. We need to keep ourselves fit, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, feeding the hope and resilience that enables us to have joy and be strong whatever occurs – looking within when external supports are tenuous, and grasping new opportunities with energy when others are scared or exhausted. We know what produces resilience – exercise, sleep, diet, sticking to routines, focusing on what we can control, interacting socially, limiting doomscrolling, practising altruism, connecting to our source of ultimate meaning.

The morale of our staff and indeed our families and our nation is held together by a cord made up of the fragile threads of the resilience of each member. We add our little bit of strength to our families, colleagues, customers and suppliers. On a national scale, we have seen in the USA recently that democracy is held by a thin cord made up of many, many fragile threads of individual commitment to doing the right thing. Fortunately, the combined strength of those fragile threads of conscience was greater than the weight of greed that sought to break them. Whether at the level of a small business or large country, leading means being as strong a thread as we can be and providing the support that strengthens other threads near us. It may sound like an insignificant contribution, but the cord of sanity and hope is made up of all these threads.

I wish you happiness and success in 2021 as you tend your own fragile thread of integrity while discovering the strength to grasp the opportunities that will undoubtedly arise for those with the belief to see them.

Jonathan Cook is a counselling psychologist and chairman of the African Management Institute. He is also the host of AMI’s weekly Rise reflection series focused on supporting you in your business and your personal wellness.

This article was originally published on BusinessLive on 19 January 2021 and is republished with permission.

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