Our inboxes are being flooded with a multitude of articles about how to lead in times of uncertainty. This is understandable as we as leaders and practitioners work to create order from chaos for ourselves and those around us; as organisations grapple with the significant changes for employers; and as consultancies look for ways to stay relevant and helpful for their customers and communities through this COVID-19 crisis.
Most articles focus on what effective leaders need to do, and the leadership attributes required. In the UK, we also saw these themes disseminated in the first few weeks after the unexpected Brexit referendum result. Many of these articles are helpful, but the sheer volume leads inevitably to contradictory and/or prescriptive messages. In turn, this may unwittingly confuse or overwhelm at a time when simplicity and getting back to basics is critical.
We know that leadership attributes such as interpersonal and communication skills, resilience and realistic optimism are key to leading in uncertainty and we know that these need to be amplified right now by leaders. However, the point is that they are the foundational components that make for effective leadership regardless of the context.
What seems to be missing from current commentary is the critical need for leadership judgement – the choices and decisions that the leader must make at each step as he or she navigates teams through these uncharted waters.
Drawing on Peter Drucker’s (1967) view, leadership is getting the right things done with and through other people. As such, leaders must be able to pivot and adapt to the nature of the situation and task, and to the characteristics of the people around them. They need to demonstrate a broad repertoire of behaviours and know which to use in each situation. As we are seeing right now, mediocre leadership may be enough (just) to lead in the good times, but ineffective leadership shows up quickly and can be catastrophic when times are tough.
It is worth stepping back to focus on these leadership judgement basics, because the world does not need any new theories or research on this topic right now. Hersey et. al.’s (1982) concept of situational judgement remains valid and useful today, as does Vroom and Yetton’s (1973) work on leadership decision making.
Building on this seminal leadership research, the simple yet comprehensive leadership judgement model (above) by Lock and Wheeler (2005) can be a useful guide to helping ourselves and our clients make the right choices about which approach will be the most effective in each situation. When does the leader need to make the decision? When is it critical to consult with others first? What activities should be delegated? When will facilitating a consensual outcome work the best?
With these four clear approaches in mind, it is also straightforward to identify our preferred style, to help us avoid a tendency to revert to type, and to guide us to the most effective situational leadership choice. We have known for centuries that there is no one leadership approach or leadership situation. We also know that effective leadership judgement and flexibility enables the leader and their teams to withstand challenge and navigate complexity no matter what the situation, where the next steps may not yet be known, and to keep moving forward with clarity, confidence and purpose.
Drucker, P.F., The effective executive, Harper & Row (1967). Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K., Management and organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources (4th ed.) Prentice-Hall (1982). Lock, M. & Wheeler, B., The Leadership Judgement Indicator Manual, Hogrefe Ltd. (2005). Vroom, V.H. & Yetton, P.W., Leadership and decision making, University of Pittsburgh Press (1973).