Learning to lead through global disruption: Getting comfortable with the increasingly uncomfortable

Business man looking uncomfortable with team behind.

As we all recover from the initial shock of finding ourselves in a global pandemic, the realisation that the world around us has changed is starting to sink in. Globally, we are experiencing a significant disruption to all of the fundamental systems on which society has been based for the past 250 years.

The Australian economy, like most others around the world, is in significant decline. We are going deep into recession after thirty years of strong growth and have large numbers of young people, many who have never experienced widespread financial hardship, out of work, and at a loss.

Our healthcare system has been hailed as one of the best in the world. Among 195 countries worldwide, Australia ranks fourth on The Global Health Security Index (2019), behind only the US, UK, and the Netherlands. However, right now, with the pressure of a pandemic firmly upon it, the gaps in the funding model, in the supply and acquisition of medical supplies, in the management of our aged care facilities and provision of services for vulnerable people, including those fully reliant on the public health system, are blindingly obvious. Calls for reform in the health sector are well and truly on the table.

Likewise, the Australian education system is also very well regarded and recent reforms, such as the introduction of a national curriculum, have served us well during the pandemic. However, the coronavirus crisis has also served to remind us of the vital role schools play in society. Having children in school is an essential cog in the machinery of the economy. Not only does our education system allow parents to work, but it also educates the workers of the future. The education system needs to be enabled, not stifled by outdated processes of government, and caught up in arguments between Federal Government and the States.

Which brings us to outdated systems and processes for getting work done. In the spotlight for many of us over the past few weeks, a call for a return to ‘the office’ has led us to question the way we are organised and work. In a recent and related blog post Professor Garth Britton highlighted some of the new thinking around the way we organise ourselves to get work done and noted some successful experiments with concepts like “holacracy” (Robertson, 2016), a decentralised system of management and organisational governance which sees authority and decision-making power distributed among self-organising or self-managing teams.

However, despite some of us celebrating the opportunity and potential for change, with so many of the pillars in our lives moving or even crumbling around us, many people are looking to leaders in the workplace to provide some sense of guidance and structure in our working lives. As such, it may not be the right time to tell all people that their organisation is moving to a flexible, informal management structure with increased levels of autonomy whereby you effectively need to figure out for yourself what work needs to be done and how to go about it.

So, what should leaders be doing? 

When, let’s face it, regardless of your level of experience or seniority, it is fairly unlikely that you have previously navigated through a time of such widespread uncertainty and ambiguity. Not only that, but like everyone else our leaders are fatigued from the activity of our initial response to the crisis, the ongoing nature of it, and from the anxiety arising from not having access or insight to any more answers than the rest of us.

Such is the nature of liminality. The threshold or undefined space between where we were and where we are heading; a transition across borders and boundaries. Or as Garth so beautifully put it “A transition phase …an opportunity to move critically and mindfully back into life, rather than jumping straight from one way of being to another” (Britton, 2020).

During this transition phase leaders can help create a sense of safety and direction for their people through two primary actions:

  1. Know what you do know and share it – Use simple frameworks to create some clarity. These might include a SWOT analysis, a Start, Stop, Continue Retrospective, or a PESTEL analysis of the environment. These simple frameworks for organising information and reminding you of information worth gathering can be used during times of uncertainty to help make sense of the world around you. Include as many people as you are comfortable in these processes and use the process to start conversations about what is happening and ways to respond. Sharing both the process and findings of such analysis also helps your people understand that you are also seeking answers and, it’s not that you are withholding information but that it’s all as complex and ambiguous to you as it is to everyone else! Humility as a leader will serve you very well during this time.
  1. Hold a space – Set aside the ‘to-do list’ and look after your people. One of the key aspects of transitioning from an operational manager to an executive or people manager is to let go of ‘doing’ and learn to be ok with ‘being’. Being available, being supportive, being someone who listens, and being an enabler of others. Everyone of us is going through this global disruption, our thresholds for stress and anxiety are lower than usual and it is taking its toll on us all. People are emotionally drained, triggered, and quite possibly scared. Lead with compassion as best you can. It is also time to share the lead and let others get involved in the thinking, planning, and exploring. Creating a culture of empowerment ensures you get multiple perspectives at the table, gives people at all levels an opportunity for their voice to be heard, and people start to take responsibility for collecting and making sense of information; they become active sense makers and don’t just sit back passively (and often impatiently) waiting for the executive team to come up with all the answers. This will also help prepare your people for new ways of working, for example, exploring holacracy.

As we all start to accept that we can’t go back and, as yet, there is no new normal, getting comfortable with the uncomfortable is probably the best we can do for now.

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Britton, G. (2020, 22/07/20). Will crisis lead to transformation? An organisational perspective. QUTeX Blog

Global Health Security (2019). 2019 Global Health Security Index. Available:

Robertson, B. J. (2016). Holacracy: The New Management System That Redefines Management. Penguin.

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Dr Shari Read is an award-winning educator with a focus on teaching skills for our digital future. As a clinically trained social psychologist and design enthusiast, Shari emphasises human-centred approaches to leadership, management and new ways of working. Her research and teaching in the area of transformation and change management emphasise the capabilities required to lead effectively through uncertainty and complexity.

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