Leading Through Uncertainty; Do You Have What it Takes?

As I mentioned in my last post, The Absolute Best Reason to Bring Values to Leadership, I am very fortunate and honored to have CEO Connection as one of my clients, and to work closely with member CEOs as Co-Chair of the Membership Committee.

Last week we hosted one of our CEO Boot Camps here in Chicago, a chance for CEOs of very large companies to share experiences, stories and advice that can be uniquely applied to make them stronger leaders.

George Bradt, the Co-Founder of CEO Connection, wrote a blog post about the keynote speaker and the wisdom he shared, having been a long-term CEO, on the opening night of the event.  If you’re interested, you can read George’s summary of Howard’s presentation in CEO Success – Howard Fluhr.

You’ll note Howard saved the best – perhaps the most important – for last.  He told the group to embrace uncertainty.  He even went on to say that he has come to notice that the most common element he has identified in successful CEOs is their ability to lead through uncertainty.  According to Howard, that’s the differentiator in getting the CEO job in the first place.

So, during one of our breaks I asked Howard a bit more about this.  I wanted to know what he thought he had done over the years that led his company’s leaders to see that in him.  What does he look for now as he is considering his successor, and how does he advise his clients to evaluate this in rising stars.

I wasn’t taking notes so I’m in no way quoting him, but we talked about fear.  He talked about how the fear that comes from uncertainly is a paralyzer to some, and when this happens it’s very evident. You can simply see it in how some respond in a meeting and how some respond in the way they do their job.

For others, it’s an enabler, sometimes even exciting. Those are the people who’ll have a shot at the top spot.

Does that include you?  Think about how you handle uncertainty in your own life.  How did you naturally respond to…

  • the first day of school
  • your first day on the job
  • getting engaged
  • finding out you were pregnant

…or any number of days when you woke up with uncertainty looming large. 

Was there a part of you that was paralyzed with fear?  Did you let that fear affect your experience or did you funnel that fear into creative energy? Were you devoid of all fear and simply open to the wild excitement of the blank slate and your own, colorful set of crayons?

Understanding your own natural reaction to uncertainty is imperative in understanding what you’re conveying to your followers in this time of uncertainty – in any period of uncertainty. To be effective you must lead through it and help your team to be effective in the midst of it. 

For me, that has always translated into holding fast to the team’s vision and then envisioning different paths that will get us there in the event Plan A doesn’t work out as expected; making sure to maximize the “pro’s” of each path and calmly navigating – and being fully prepared for – the “con’s.” 

How do you lead through uncertainty, and what is your natural reaction to it?  What advice do you have for others?  

Please share your responses and advice this Tuesday evening, November 16th at 8:00 pm ET at our next edition of #LeadershipChatSteve Woodruff and I hope to see you there!  And don’t forget to head over to Steve’s blog tomorrow for his take on leading through uncertainty!

Please consider subscribing so you don’t miss a postSubscribe Here to receive posts in your in-box automatically. To receive posts via “READER” Subscribe Here - thank you – I’m honored to have you as a reader!

Photo is “looks like trouble” by are you my rik?


  1. Yes! The more we develop a healthy relationship with the unknown, the more equipped we are to deal with today’s challenges. Such resilience is an essential skill today.

    I’d add that all change begins with disruption. After all, if there weren’t a disturbance of some sort, there’s be no reason to change.

    And as you indicated, it takes moving beyond fear. I second the vital role of creating a positive image of a desired future.

    I do a lot of work with journalists through an initiative called Journalism That Matters. We’ve successfully moved mainstream journalists beyond their fear through creating opportunities for interacting with new media people and other people of the whole system of journalism. We engage them around questions that matter to them all. For example, What does a news ecology that serves communities and democracy look like?

    By the time they’re done, they’ve got new, unlikely partners and have left their fear behind as they focus on creating a future they want.

    • Peggy,

      What a positive and exciting initiative you have going – I suspect you feel very fulfilled when they leave the event with their fear behind them. Kudos to you and thank you so much for sharing word of this initiative with the readers! Wishing you the very best of luck with it…

  2. Don’t laugh but the first thing I do when faced with uncertainly, chaos you name it, is clean my house, my office, my car, my computer. I just have to organize something tangible. As I am doing this I look at all the options, their implementation paths and the positives, negatives related with each choice. When my house is clean and organized I’m ready to go out to meet with my partner(s), team or clients and both share and discuss some or all of the options. Defining and filtering options to solve or make an uncertain or chaotic situation more manageable is for me an interesting and rewarding endeavor. I must be one of those crazy individuals who thrives on uncertainty and goes somewhat crazy when everything goes along on an even keel. What great subjects you are selecting and writing about for #leadershipchat @CASUDI
    CASUDI´s last blog post ..THE REAL LIFE MBA

    • I just wonder if my comment was a tad confusing. When I clean I am not looking at the cleaning options, positives or negatives, actually I’m pretty much on auto pilot cleaning :-) while defining and filtering choices/options related to the sudden uncertainly or chaos facing me. Just wanted to make sure. @CASUDI
      CASUDI´s last blog post ..THE REAL LIFE MBA

    • Hi Caroline,

      I certainly didn’t laugh. I think you’re decluttering the environment both figuratively and literally, which makes complete sense in the face of uncertainty. When you clear a space to think critically, it’s easier to see the path forward…

      Great thoughts for you to share tonight with the group, methinks! And thank you for the kind words about the chat. :)

  3. Brian Stankich says:

    Natural reaction: #1 Think about the ramifications. #2 Offer to help implement the change

  4. Jim Taylor says:

    Name the Beast.

    I have found that if I can clearly define what it is that I fear, what is the worst possible thing that can happen – or get a team to articulate those fears, that action alone makes the fears less powerful. Often, you realize how unlikely or how small they are even as you write them out or say them. But even if they are substantial, you can break them down into things you can address, actions you can take, help you can get. With Teams, I often uncover fears I never would have imagined that they had (my blindspots as a leader) and often can dispatch them immediately by confirming their status or clarifying intentions.

    Named beasts die quickly.

    • Jim Taylor says:

      OK, so I’m a litte late to the party.

    • This is a brilliant addition to the discussion, Jim. Naming the beast certainly changes your entire perspective! Thank you so much for taking time to share your own experience and simply for being a reader!


  1. […] on Twitter. Before the magic hour, be sure you also read the perspectives of my wise co-moderator, Lisa Petrilli, on her […]

  2. […] all face great uncertainty today.  Learn how to lead through uncertainty to help your teams move beyond […]