Leadership in Times of Uncertainty (Samantha Aspinall)

At the first Research Encounter event, Navigating Uncertainty, we asked a panel of Professor Kim Graham (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Enterprise, Cardiff University),

Professor Julian Chaudhuri (Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Education and Student Experience, University of Plymouth) and Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar (Director, Wellcome Trust) for their views on leading in times of uncertainty. They talked about their roles, and the challenges that uncertainty brings in leadership, as well as how they work with the people around them to take decisions in uncertain times.

In this blog Samantha Aspinall summarises their thoughts and advice drawn from their own experiences as senior leaders in the sector.

‘I think that uncertainty is something that affects all of us whoever we are and it certainly affects all leaders, if they're honest about the roles they play. For example, when to step in, when to lean in, when to lean out, when to step back from something, when to be forceful, when to be less so. And I think it is a something that we all struggle with, if we're honest. It is magnified at the moment by events happening around us and of course COVID is one of those, but it's much deeper than COVID. I think we are at one of those inflection points in history when we will look back in many years to come and say that was a really pivotal moment.’

Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar.

How can we as individuals deal with uncertainty?

Uncertainty strikes people in different ways and this, all our panel members agreed, is an area that as leaders it is crucial to understand. Some of us embrace the idea of the unknown, others find it hugely stressful. When I talk to people about how they deal with uncertainty, I often use the analogy of going on a trip (remember that?) to somewhere for the first time. Some are happy to head off with no real itinerary, just arrive and see what they fancy doing. For others this approach is seen as risky because new experiences might be missed due to lack of planning. Of course, it is easy to think about your responses when it is your ‘own’ time, but does that differ when we are at work and shouldering a different type of responsibility? Prof Graham talked about understanding your own response to uncertainty. She focused on understanding as an individual, how you respond when you find yourself in difficult uncertain situations. When feeling uncertain, for example, you might find yourself feeling out of control. That can then create anxiety and induce rumination around decision making. This type of rumination can use up huge amounts of time and energy which in turn stops you focussing on what decisions you can make now and what you can control.

As researchers and innovators, uncertainty is already a part of the job. You have developed ideas, approaches and experiments that need testing and where the outcome is uncertain. You are at the cutting edge of knowledge, where the answers are unknown. Given your experience as researcher, you already know about uncertainty and will have developed approaches to deal positively with it. Prof Graham noted, ‘The adaptations I’ve developed as a researcher – working on uncertain questions – have been vital for me being able to step up a level and work across a much bigger leadership landscape where there is almost constant ongoing uncertainty.’ As an already successful researcher, this is a skill already at your disposal. Our panellists shared their approaches:

  • Take a break. It sounds obvious but this is the time to recognise your triggers and pause before the situation becomes uncomfortable for you to deal with. Stop fighting the fires and put a little space between you and them;

  • Remain calm. ‘How do you remain calm when the world is banging on your door?’ asks Prof Chaudhuri. His response, having seen others do it, is to know enough about the subject to know what's important, what's relevant and what's critical but also being aware of what you don't know;

  • Talk to your ‘safe’ people. All of us need sounding boards. Whether we prefer to reflect on an issue then share our thoughts or talk through the issues as they arise, a trusted colleague can be invaluable;

  • Think about reflecting on your own responses to uncertainty through your 360 feedback.

How can we be leaders in times of uncertainty?

No-one does their job in isolation, we all work with people. We have already looked at how situations might affect us, so we also need to apply this thinking to our teams. ‘We have to learn to cope with it in our leadership approaches because you can be absolutely sure that if you're feeling the fear and uncertainty, you can be absolutely sure that those around you are also feeling that in a magnified way,’ Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar. As Prof Chaudhuri says ‘the role of universities has meant that resisting change has not been an option. We couldn't say, we're going to close the doors, like John Lewis has done, and when it's all over, we'll come back. We've had to keep going.’ Not everybody has reacted the same way to the pandemic and the need to pivot.’ When others are looking to you for guidance, it can make you feel uncomfortable at precisely the time when you're as uncertain as everybody else.