Good leadership in uncertain times

In these uncertain times agility is needed for the big pivot –for making bolder decisions more quickly with imperfect information and knowing that near enough and best guesses will have to be good enough, writes Kate Kearins.

In times of uncertainty, good leadership can be the difference between calm and crisis.  

That’s never felt more true than now, as the world responds to the fast-changing and ever-growing threat of Covid-19. 

As I write this, the world is effectively closing down as Covid-19 takes hold. All around us, change is happening with an alacrity that is rightly described as unprecedented. International borders have shut, the economy is tanking, businesses are struggling, homes are doubling as quarantine chambers, and medical facilities are preparing for, or facing, the trauma of mass illness and death. 

We are confronting the beauty and the beast of globalisation.   

The impact is enormous. It is also varied, driven not only by organisational and societal challenges regarding technology and infrastructure, but by the range of emotions such a situation can trigger. 

Within the tertiary sector, for example, we have enrolled students stuck overseas who desperately wanted to be here but couldn’t because of travel bans, as well as students who are here but are increasingly worried about their health and safety as the number of New Zealand cases rise. 

Among my colleagues, emotional responses also run the gamut – from feeling energised by the challenge of adapting their teaching practices to deliver effective online learning, to concern about the medium-long-term implications of the virus, and even angry – at the timing of restrictions being put in place to mitigate this outbreak. 

It can feel like a no-win situation. 

Which is precisely where and why good leadership comes in. 

If I had time for a proper online search of academic databases, there would be a slew of articles, evidence-based and anecdotal, on this subject. 

Dr Google advises that good leaders are informed by a range of traits including versatility, transparency, flexibility, accountability and humour. 

These are coupled with such skills as the ability to “deep dive”, to give and receive 360 constructive criticism and to be “values-based, outcomes-driven.” I’ve needed all of those skills so far.

Let me add two more that seem particularly valid right now. 

Number 1: Agility. Agility is absolutely needed for the big pivot – whether personally getting up to speed with technology and working from home, not the office, or for making bolder decisions more quickly with imperfect information and knowing that near enough and best guesses will have to be good enough.

Number 2: Now more than ever, a focus on the collective is important. Good leaders are made and maintained by the will of the communities they guide – and if we are not engaged with, informed by and committed to the good of this collective, even our most skilful leadership efforts are for naught. 

It might seem paradoxical:  How do we make decisions on behalf of the collective while still holding true to our self-belief as a leader? 

These are times when more of us will be confronted with questions about what is really important and what really matters. Our convictions might be tested, and if they were built on sand, then they will need rethinking. There’s less time for flim-flam, and there should be more time for people.

In times of COVID-19, leadership success more than ever rests squarely on the strengths of people, those who can support, advise and action the priorities that advance our collective good in ways that matter and resonate with a world that is different. 

Together, we rely on each other to boost morale, inject humour and lightness where appropriate, and take care of each other and ourselves. 

Leader or follower, adviser or supporter – we’re all in this together. Kia kaha.  


Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor/Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology.

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