Several years ago, Filipinos were infuriated with Dan Brown after a character in his book ‘Inferno’ described Manila as ‘the gates of hell’, citing the city’s 6-Hour traffic as one of the reasons why. Now if you’ve ever been to the Philippines, you would know that this is simply untrue. Traffic is bad, but not hellish bad, wink-wink.
But in one March morning last year, it took me only sixteen minutes to cross four cities to get to work. As I arrived at the office, I thought to myself — I could get used to this. But that feeling of satisfaction eventually disappeared because by the end of day, a community quarantine was announced. This marked the beginning of an anxiety-filled and uncertain time.
In an earlier article ‘Step-Up Leadership’, I detailed how our organization pivoted the business to tide us over the first few months of the pandemic. This time, I’d like to share with you some of the lessons I learned while leading in uncertainty.
Grab the opportunity.
One of the first contingency theories of leadership was published about half a century ago and it emphasizes that leadership is primarily ‘situational’. We see this further evolving today into the practical models of adaptive and emergent leadership. Whatever you might want to call it, uncertainty is an opportunity for leadership to emerge. This is where true leaders leave their mark. When you know that you are the right person or at the slightest, the least wrong person for the job – do not be afraid to put yourself out there and take the lead. You do not have to be the CEO or the President of the company to make an impact. Leadership in uncertainty starts from the ground up.
Pretend that you know.
When I was in college, I would often get called to go to the board to solve a problem in our calculus class and I would always immediately stand-up and tell our professor ‘Mam, I apologize but I do not know how to solve it’. Our professor who was also the dean at that time would then say, ‘I don’t care. Go to the board and pretend that you know’. So, I would go and because I didn’t want to scratch my head in front of the class for an hour and a half, I would put my game face on and do my best to solve it. And oftentimes, I was able to. It was her way of teaching me that there are times when you do not have to know the answer but you just need to be ready to deal with the problem. In some ways, this is exactly what I did. But don’t take this too literally – pretend that you know but do your best to get yourself up to speed!
Be a spotlight operator.
You will not be able to lead everyone and that is okay. Some people are still caught up and paralyzed by the uncertainty, some people already gave up in their minds, some people don’t want to be accountable and some people just don’t want to because they don’t like you. So as management gives you full control of the dance floor ‘so to speak’, it is not only important for you to set the tone and rhythm as the DJ but also make sure that you become a spotlight operator and highlight individuals that are responding to your leadership and contributing to the goal.
There are always more lessons to be learned. I chose to share with you these three because I feel that these are the ones that are unique as opposed to the standard lessons you would find in previous articles. But there is one more lesson I would like to leave you with. A lesson that is far more important than perhaps anything you would read online. And that is, at the end of the day, at the end of any day, at the end of it all. We are all people, leading people. In times of uncertainty, leadership becomes personal so it has to be one on one, it has to be with empathy and it has to be with hope.