Leading in truly uncertain times.

by Mar 20, 2020

  • The COVID-19 situation is an all-you-can-eat test of change leadership.
  • Calm yourself: Calm leaders make for calm teams.
  • This is not a drill.

So, for a while now we have been banging on about business agility being the panacea to leading in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environments. 

In networking events, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and conferences, executives earnestly nod their heads in acknowledgement that they are operating in a VUCA environment. 

And while I could always agree with them with regard to the uncertainty and complexity aspects, I often challenged the volatility and the ambiguity. Because, I didn’t think that many organisations really operated in volatile and ambiguous environments. Fast-moving – yes, confusing – also yes, but not volatile or ambiguous. 

Until, as the meme said, “what a month we had last week”.

The spread of COVID-19 and accompanying impending recession and widespread corporate and government work from home has resulted in truly volatile conditions, with information and news changing hour-to-hour bringing with them multiple interpretations of policies and Business Continuity Plans. It has shown that the vast majority of leaders and senior managers are unprepared for a truly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment. 

It has brought to the fore the importance of leaders being able to bring calm to chaos. It is a need that can only be underscored by the leader’s ability to find their own calm. Because, if you can’t calm yourself, you have no chance of calming others. 

It has also brought forward the value of high trust environments and flexible work arrangements. While rocky, it has not been especially challenging for those organisations who were already geared towards flexible work and trusting the team members.

For those without clear work from home policies, it has been exceptionally challenging. 

But, if we go back to basics: The immediate need at the moment is in helping people to calm – your employees, your colleagues, your peers, your family members. 

When leading, how do we help people to calm?

1. Ground yourself first.

In the safety briefing on airplanes we are told if travelling with an infant or child, give oxygen to ourselves first before giving to the younger one. The principle stays the same here. You need to find a way to ground yourself so that you are calm. 

Ways of grounding range from the hardcore metaphysical ‘woo’ to the very basic physiological breathing. 

It’s your choice what you do, but absolutely not negotiable that you do it.  

2. Address the chemistry of stress. 

Once you’re grounded you will be attentive to the neurobiology and chemistry of stress.

Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear. – Mayo Clinic 

Two of the ways that counter stress hormones are to encourage laughter, and show appreciation. Both these activities increase dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, These feel-good hormones can help create a buffer against the stress hormones.

3. Open heart and open mind.

We don’t tend to talk about love and heart-based practice in the workplace all that much. But the act of giving and receiving love is calming. It makes you feel good to be compassionate, and it makes others feel reassured to receive compassion. 

Note, however, that this is very different from empathy. Empathising with someone encourages shared pain – and this ramps up those stress hormones again. Being compassionate increases those feel-good hormones again. 

You show an open mind by listening attentively to people. This makes people feel valued, but also opens up the possibility that other people may have some really clever ideas

4. Reinforce stability

Our brains crave certainty and see uncertainty as survival threat and respond accordingly (fight / flight / freeze). Two of the ways to help our brains stay out of survival responses and stay calm is to reinforce stability. 

This means maintaining your rituals – if you exercise at 6 am, still exercise at 6 am. If you normally check in with team members at 9 am, continue to do this. 

Rituals are very calming and offer anchors of certainty. Equally, when communicating changes to the way the organisation is operating, repeat what is staying the same and staying consistent. 

People will be hyper-alert to what changes so you will need repeat the messages of stability. 

5. You only have one body, treat it well.

To embody calm you need to be hydrated and breathing well. Sometimes this needs to be a conscious activity. 

  • Set your alarms on your watch or phone.
  • Give yourself reminders.
  • Invite others to drink water and breathe well. 

If you are dehydrated and shallow breathing you will be inducing panic in your body. The same applies to the people you lead. 

So they are my top 5 tips – I welcome you sharing your thoughts on what creates calm. And in the weeks to come, I wish you calm, clarity and compassion. 


1 Comment

  1. Caroline

    Certain music prior to opening your outlook, Teams etc will reduce stress.

    Taking conscientious breaks in the middle of the day for water cooler discussions either online or with family members

    Allow yourself for a casual Friday with light discussions at the end of a workday.

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