William Easmon’s thoughts … The certainty of uncertainty: the role of leadership


The world is full of people who are very certain—in politics, in religion, in all manner of things. In addition, political, religious, and social organizations are marketing certainty as a cure to all life’s problems. This is purely because the human brain according to neuroscientist is wired for certainty. But is such certainty possible? Or even good?

The world has witnessed such uncertainty in the decades past and this seems to be the new normal – a new normal which has seen the great global recessions, the bursting of the dot com bubble, the introduction of AI, AR, Machine Learning 3D Printing and lighting speed changes across the world. A lot has been said and written about the fourth industrial revolution and its attendant disruption. Its wave upon wave of innovations. The issue is that waves are not permanent, they come, break and a new wave is formed.

Covid-19 has come to expose the uncertainties of what a few months ago we thought were certainties. Most governments, firms, businesses had made plans about either scaling up or down, moving into green fields, setting up new production lines, increasing top line and bottom-line, penetrating new markets, increasing wallet share, etc.

Whoever thought passenger planes will be grounded and international travel will virtually grind to a halt? Whoever thought one of the most critical substances in today’s world would be ethanol – ethanol not for alcoholic use but as a base for sanitizers? Whoever thought Formula One engineers will today be using their expertise to support the manufacture of ventilators? Whoever thought the definition of critical staff will change?

Let’s face facts, most organisations and firms had semblances of Business Continuity plans and invested massively into hardware and physical buildings.

In most firms, pre-mortems, I dare say considered a situation such as we have today. To the extent that nations – powerful nations – were unprepared for such an outbreak even though once upon a time there appeared a flu named after a country which is today being devastated by COVID-19.

Interestingly, most firm’s business continuity infrastructure were virtually redundant during lockdown periods – even more interesting is the fact that these firms were actually being run from employees homes – where hitherto it was forbidden to take work to. The picture of our world epitomises clearly the famous VUCA definition.

  • V = Volatility: the nature and dynamics of change, and the nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.
  • U = Uncertainty: the lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.
  • C = Complexity: the multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues, no cause-and-effect chain and confusion that surrounds organization.
  • A = Ambiguity: the haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions; cause-and-effect confusion.

In the era of “unavoidable uncertainties” what questions should you be asking yourself now – especially if you are a leader?

  • What kind of leadership is required in light of Covid-19?
  • How do you show up as a leader?
  • How do you maintain authenticity without losing authority?
  • How do you future-proof your business? “Best practice” verse “new practice”!

There’s no “playbook” for leadership when the stakes are high, and there’s certainly no playbook for what to do in the face of a 21st Century pandemic.  We are all facing threats on multiple fronts concurrently: to self, family, employees, customers, suppliers and business partners, governmental and financial systems, and potentially our social fabric.

What we need today is sober, smart, values-driven, and focused leadership.  Remember the old adage, “Crisis does not build character, it reveals it.”  The old army saying captures it succinctly – “Sweat in peace or bleed in war”. Companies are not resilient in themselves, rather it is resilient leaders who make resilient companies.  The point being that there are no resilient companies without resilient leaders.

This piece focuses on some nuggets on leadership traits in times of uncertainty.

  • Courage
  • Focus
  • Leadership Agility
  • Self-Awareness
  • Humility

Courage – the most important virtue all great leaders possess

Courage is everything. Courage in the face of adversity. Courage to risk yourself and your safety. Courage to speak the truth. Courage to stand alone. Courage to try the difficult thing, even if it might not work. Courage to change your mind. Courage to defend something on principle. Courage to do what’s right. Courage to say I’m sorry when you are wrong.

Leadership is highly personal; what works for one person might not work for another.  However, an absolute truth prevails. Leadership must start from within – from within the leader’s heart – where real courage resides.  It is not simply a case of memorising a list of do’s or don’ts and applying them to a particular situation.  Courage is a necessary trait of effective leadership.  It is hard to argue that other traits such as integrity, honesty, altruism, and decisiveness are not qualities of a good leader. But leaders cannot display these traits if they didn’t have courage.

Focus – the ability to stay the course no matter what

With the many distractions and noises, pieces of advice – solicited and, it is critical that the leader maintains the focus on the purpose of existence of the entity. This presupposes that there is a clearly defined mission or purpose for that entity and this has been cascaded to the understanding of the vision executors – your team members.

It is so easy to get distracted by what others are doing that you lose focus. I am not saying you should not keep an eye on your competitor and what is working for them, but do not get swayed by seeming success of your competitor such that you lead your entity into areas where you are not equipped to be. Even where you have to switch temporarily to ensure business survival, it is critical that you keep your eye on the bigger picture.

For example, there are alcoholic beverage manufactures today who have switched into the manufacturing of sanitisers, there are garment factories which have switched into the manufacturing of PPEs.

Leadership agility – making smart and effective decisions in a rapidly changing world

It’s being able to anticipate the best way to go forward; knowing the best ways to inspire your team; turning thoughts and ideas into actions; and evaluating results for successes and failures.

This means taking a proactive approach to business decisions, rather than a reactive one. Change is the one constant thing in life. Agile leaders not only embrace change, but actively look for areas where change is likely to occur. Like it or not, market conditions, competitors and technological advances force change upon us daily and we must be agile enough to adapt to the change

Agile leaders are able to generate confidence among their employees. When employees are trusting, engaged and confident in the leadership of an organisation, the entire team works in a more synergistic, collaborative fashion.

Self awareness – the core component of emotional intelligence

By knowing your values, personality, needs, habits and emotions, and how they affect your actions and the actions of others, you’ll be better able to manage your stress, make better decisions and ultimately lead others to do the same.

Self-awareness is empowering because it arms you with knowledge and enables you to make better choices.

Research actually shows a positive correlation between self-awareness and companies’ bottom line. In a study of the stock performance of 486 publicly traded companies in 2018, Korn/Ferry International found that companies with strong financial performance tend to have employees with higher levels of self-awareness than poorly performing companies.

Humility – it helps you bring your team along

It is critical at this point to bring your team along with you as we navigate these uncertain times. Many leaders tend to confuse hubris with leadership potential, yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group.

In our ever-changing times, leaders need to be agile and responsive while thinking ahead. At the same time, they need to recognize that the furious pace of change is causing their employees to feel overwhelmed, stressed and burned out. A humble leader might be just what the doctor prescribes for the burnout, exhaustion and unease that characterizes many workplaces today.

Humble leaders do not profess to know it all, do not micromanage and are open to diverse points of view. That makes them perfect for leading successful, productive and happy teams that provide the emotional security employees need. The humble leader fosters trust, something that is increasingly absent from corporations today. Instead of having to navigate corporate politics, a humble leader enables an environment where employees feel that their feedback is welcomed and encouraged.


Going through hard times is never fun, but if you instill a sense of community within your team, then you will likely have stronger relationships and deeper trust once this crisis is over. Remember that we will eventually emerge from this. What you do now will build trust with your people, or ruin any trust they have in you. People will always remember how you made them feel.

It won’t be easy—it never is—but that’s the point. That’s what it takes to be a great leader. Prepare for the worst but expect the best.

>>>The author is the People and Culture Function Director, Absa Bank Ghana. This is an extract from Absa Business Connect series designed to help you find a way to get things done

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