Leading and influencing through uncertainty – Part 1 of 4

Leading and influencing through uncertainty photo

Leading and influencing through uncertainty – Part 1 of 4

What do you do when no one can tell you what to do.

By Peter Cunningham, Co-Director of the Geneva Leadership Alliance

The problem we are all facing right now is that there is no one who can tell us what the right choices are to get through the overwhelming disruption caused by COVID-19. No one can tell us with certainty how to act, how to best help ourselves, our families, our communities, our businesses, our nations. There are lessons we can learn from previous disruptive events. However, there is no checklist with all the answers to provide the reassurance we crave. This is, in some ways, similar to the experience of people moving into senior leadership positions and finding there is no longer anyone telling them what to do or how to do it. Instead, people are looking to them for direction and answers. So, as we all look to each other for guidance and support, we must recognise that the current situation requires us all to learn what to do when no one can tell us what to do. This is a mass coming of age moment; a challenge we must all rise to.

One place to start is to recognise that we are not lacking in intelligent and creative human capacity to tackle this crisis – at international level, country level or community level. We have overcome worse before. So, let’s assume that we have the collective capacity to navigate this very uncertain period and even prevent it being a catalyst for even worse disruption. What we then need are ways of mobilising our collective wisdom. We need to set ourselves direction, to align efforts and a shared commitment to achieving meaningful outcomes that help families, organisations and societies recover, develop a collective resilience to future disruptions and go on to thrive. 

The Geneva Leadership Alliance seeks to understand how people achieve outcomes together when a) the work is complex, b) the people involved are diverse (culturally, professionally or otherwise) and c) the environment and conditions are challenging: e.g. high levels of risk, significant ambiguity, power imbalances, limited resources and known solutions. We have distilled this into the word “leadership”. It is described in many different ways around the world, but this is what is being asked of all of us.

So, in the event that some of what we have learned may be useful to others at this time, we will share with you, in this and in three follow-up articles over the next few weeks, some insights and practices that anyone can undertake, whether you are a caring citizen focused on your family and neighbours, an independent professional running your own small organisation, a manager of a team, or the head of an organisation or business or even a nation. Of course, these topics are not the only things that matter, not by a long way but, if practiced, they can make a difference to you and those around you:

Making Space – A senior leader of a government organisation in the middle east recently told us, “I cannot buy time for my staff right now.” She expressed what many people are currently experiencing. So, what can you do?

Making Sense – Sensemaking is what makes us uniquely human and is what enables us to find solutions to complex challenges. During a time like this, there are many distractions; it needs focused attention

Taking Decisions – Much has been studied, written and discussed about decision-making. We will share some practices that can make a difference in times of high uncertainty. We know that decisions made today will have a lasting impact and legacy. 

Taking Responsibility – When we think about leadership we often think about people in positions of formal authority. At the highest level, we see a range of examples of how people are taking or not taking responsibility as leaders. We are also seeing that the job title is not the same as the person’s actions, and that many people are stepping up and taking responsibility without necessarily having that formal authority. What can you do, with or without the title of leader?



Related Course. How you act during this extremely challenging period will have a long-lasting impact on you and those around you? Join us for the "Lead and Influence with Impact, Online Edition" a series of virtual workshops every Friday and self-paced learning over 4 weeks from 15 September - 08 October 2020. 

For the rest of this article, we will focus on: Making Space

We must acknowledge that a traumatic global event is occurring right now. It is not only frontline workers that will be deeply affected by this extraordinary situation. In fact, it would be unusual if you were not affected. Ask yourself: how is this disruption affecting you, your behaviour – and what are the implications for those around you? Could you be part of the problem, if you’re not careful, when it comes to responding to the situation and finding ways forward?

Some people now need to recharge. They have been active or available all hours for weeks. This may be your dedicated expert or crisis response teams, or it may be your IT support person, or it might be you. Even someone who is the only person who can do what they do will still need to recharge at some point or risk burning out. Who is looking out for this and deciding when people are rotated, even for a small amount of time?

Be even more tolerant towards others. We all know ourselves well enough to know when we are at our most tolerant and when we are not. Try and hold the space for people to be able to express themselves and rediscover a constructive mindset. If you role model this, others will do the same, and this will pay forward. This is where the level of trust that exists between people, between teams, really shows. If you have invested in a high trust culture, the tolerance across a group will be higher; the ability and commitment to maintain focus on activities that matter most will also be higher.     

Make space for both learning and scenario planning. Are you reflecting on everything that is happening to inform future preparedness? Lack of time is usually the reason given for not doing this, closely followed by regret. If we wait to capture what there is to be learned from this situation, we will miss the lessons that matter most. (There will be more on this in the second article.) Also, who is thinking about likely upcoming scenarios and the opportunities and additional challenges they may bring? We are very good at deluding ourselves and it is extremely tempting to move forward assuming a linear way “back to normal”. Let’s be clear, despite popular belief, COVID-19 is not a Black Swan. It has been well documented for some years that a pandemic is one of the most likely-to-occur globally disruptive threats.

These questions and practices apply equally to individuals, teams and organisations of all sizes, and are shared to stimulate meaningful reflection to help find ways forward at a challenging time for all of us. In the next edition, we will provide some insights and practices on the topic of Making Sense.


The Geneva Leadership Alliance is an ecosystem of partners and associates that provides insight, education and resources on leadership issues related to global peace and security. On 15 May, we will be launching our hugely successful “Lead and Influence for Impact” course to a global audience in a fully online format.


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.

Peter Cunningham is founder and co-director of the Geneva Leadership Alliance, a partnership that combines Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) expertise on peace, security and global governance with leadership development expertise of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). The mission of this Alliance is to advance the understanding, practice and positive impact of leading in public, private, non-profit organizations and civil society: especially those dedicated to advancing peace and security.