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How to lead a team when the path forward is increasingly unclear

The most successful individuals know when to step back and “ground” themselves before confronting uncertainty.

How to lead a team when the path forward is increasingly unclear
[Photo: Felix Mittermeier/Pexels]
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In 2020, we’re all feeling off-kilter. It’s an unsettling time, and a challenging time to be a business leader. To stay afloat during the pandemic, leaders have had to manage through more change in three months than most of us do in three years. And now, with protests across our country, and additional spikes in COVID-19 cases, it seems clear the pace of change is only going to continue to accelerate.

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As humans, we have an almost biological need for leadership. During times of crisis and reinvention, a need for leadership feels like a biological need. Leaders help us find meaning in the chaos, offering direction, perspective and purpose. They give us confidence, and help us reclaim our rhythm.

Being a leader is always a big job; that’s especially true now when we’re unconvinced of our safety and unsure about our future. How do you effectively lead your team from such a vantage point? How do you come up with an action plan when so many factors are beyond your control?

When we experience rapid change, we have to relinquish our need for certainty, embrace the ambiguity, and trust that our experience has conditioned us for this moment.

Authenticity is mandatory

These days it can feel like our rhythm is off. It is difficult for us to feel grounded when our work schedule and process is completely altered. Plus our community staples—coffee shops, gyms, houses of worship, libraries—are likewise not operating reliably. That impacts our sense of time, routine, and overall wellness. It’s hard, then, to find our center of gravity, which operates as our core of strength and clarity.

Leaders are doubly challenged because we feel as uncertain about the future as anyone, but we don’t always feel comfortable with expressing feelings of doubt or fear with employees. We want to be a pillar of strength for our teams even as the ground shifts beneath our feet. If the events of 2020 had lasted just a few weeks, maybe we could bridge the gap without showing our vulnerability. But the chaos has not only lasted, it has increased in depth and complexity.

As executive coach Christine Grimm recently shared with me, many leaders are having difficulty with the level of fear and uncertainty we’re living with right now as humans. It’s become harder to stay even keeled or fake how we’re feeling as chaos ensues around us.

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Lead from your center

We all strive to be authentic as leaders, but how do we maintain transparency when it feels like more things are out of our control than ever? Grimm recommends leaders apply an exercise called “Stop, challenge and choose” to get grounded. If you are feeling out of control or afraid, the best thing to do is stop, take a few breaths and challenge your own thinking to make sure what you’re about to say to people is not only authentic, but also intentional.

It can be tempting to allow the swirl of change or things outside our control overwhelm us, but it’s a better strategy to step back. Compose ourselves. Find our center, and lead from a vantage point that we recognize and can always count on.

Remind yourself of your achievements

But the swirl is real. The day is long, and leaders can drift as much as anyone. To find your center, remember the defining career moments in the past where you overcame adversity to succeed with your team.

For me, one of these moments in my career was inheriting the Windows marketing team at Microsoft, after the failure of Windows 8. Initially, my team and I had little idea of how we were going to overcome the increasing competition from Apple and Google, and even key internal stakeholders were questioning whether we were witnessing the twilight of Windows. Only after acknowledging that we didn’t have all the answers, did we start chipping away.

Instead of wasting time, resources and our collective brainpower dwelling on those factors outside our control, we shifted to focus on those areas we could control and influence. Here’s what we do know. Here’s what we can do. Here’s what is true. And here’s what we need to learn next.

During times of adversity, it can feel like you’re losing your way. When that feeling comes, remember that it’s no accident that you came to be in the leadership role you’re in today. Remember what transformed you into your leadership self. Then focus on those areas you can influence over time. Are there moves your team can make that may change the situation in favor of your desired outcome? What internal teams or partners can you work with to align plans and resources?

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Treat your values as a compass

Leaders learn and build new muscles all the time. As author and speaker Nick Vujicic shared with me, this is a time when leaders need to reassess their values and priorities, while staying objective, “When the rip tide of change pulls you out, you can find your center and come back to where you know you need to be as a person.”

But we can’t do this alone. We need our coaches and mentors. They help us identify, refine and honor those core values that characterize and drive our work. “It takes somebody that can tell you the truth to get you back on track,” notes Vujicic. “Rather than just surrounding ourselves with ‘yes’ people, we have to ground ourselves as leaders […] to make sure that we are true to ourselves and don’t limit our potential.”

Leadership takes the raw materials in us, puts them under great pressure and refines them into something better. Resiliency isn’t a consolation prize we earn for making it through hard times; it’s an awareness as a result of facing challenges This year is difficult and will continue throwing hardships our way. The hope is after this crisis, we will stand as better leaders, employees, and citizens.


Jeremy Korst is president of GBH Insights, a leading marketing strategy, analytics and consumer behavior firm. Previously, he held senior executive roles at Microsoft and T-Mobile and served on the executive board of the Wharton School.