Leading in turbulent times

by .

We are never going back to business as usual


All good leaders anticipate continuing change. Few are truly ready for the arrival of rapid and mould-breaking uncertainty, where suddenly the big questions outweigh the answers.

The banking-led recession has not been followed by a return to ‘normality’ in a neat, linear flow. Commodity and oil prices, regional conflicts and the UK/EU referendum are all stark reminders that we are in an era of continuing unpredictability and turbulence which is not about to come to an end.

How do you, as a leader, stay effective and keep delivering? How much do you continue essential good practice, how much depends on doing things differently? How do you lead through uncertainty?


Research and expert opinion suggests five features of successful leadership in times of turbulence


1. Be more certain about direction and purpose, be more agile about how to get there

Communicate and repeat your long-term direction and purpose more strongly and more frequently than normal and keep your executive team aligned around these. Be prepared to change your routemap, to focus team energy and to promote agility. Take account of events as they unfold. Failure to lead this way was key to the demise of Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers.

2. Choose a few fundamentals to defend, allow other cherished priorities to change

Survival and success usually requires making some changes to plan and being more flexible. Make sure that everyone is clear about the fundamentals that will not change. These must remain your personal priorities. Delegate and encourage flexibility about everything else. This has been at the heart of turnarounds at Shell, Microsoft, and many others.

3.Stay positive, but always authentic and credible

As CEO, what you say and do is amplified continuously. Instilling confidence around you is your unique task – being clear about what you know and credible about the wide range of unknowns. Avoid the trap of staying silent because you do not yet know the answers. Celebrate each step forward – however modest or short-term – and acknowledge the tough actions you take.

4. Stick to what only the CEO can do: manage the outside context, manage your team

Avoid the temptation, as risks increase, to be more hands-on about everything. You have two essential tasks: keep the wider leadership group productive, and maintain your unique joined-up management of stakeholders. Getting this right is how James Fletcher rescued NASA in the 1990s. Getting it wrong lost Greg Dyke his job leading the BBC a decade ago.

5. Increase your pace and delivery

A normal response for most during uncertainty is to get cautious, slow-down and delay decisions. But it is vital during such times to lead from the front, keep up the momentum, and focus on short and medium-term delivery. Help everyone listen, learn and adjust to what is going on around you.

During downturns, 20% of lagging businesses become leaders in their sector. Turbulence, unpredictability and uncertainty are not just about crisis and risk management. Alongside the tough decisions, there are real opportunities for leaders who choose to do the right things, in new ways.

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