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Leading Through Uncertainty

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THESE are the times that try men’s souls. -Thomas Paine

Greetings, fellow leaders. Have you had your hands full these last couple of weeks? How are you holding up?

Take a quick moment, if you will, to check your tension level. Do you know where you carry your stress? For some it could be in the neck and shoulders, for others it might be a clenched jaw, holding the steering wheel too tightly, becoming overly controlling or critical, or occasionally forgetting to breathe. Some of you might not be sleeping as well as you’d like. There is so much to think about and the global situation with the COVID-19 pandemic is changing rapidly. It is no exaggeration to say that it has turned our worlds, both business and personal, upside down.  There is anxiety, fear, and concern all around us.

I’m big on attentive breathing when feeling tension and stress, so indulge me for a short time, please. Breathe in deeply for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, and then exhale slowly for four seconds. Do it again if it helps. You might also want to turn off your source of news for a time and go for a walk, read a good book, or stretch. Red wine is optional, but I am here to tell you there is no shortage at the moment and the vineyard owners and wine distributors need you.

Sorry, where was I?

My good friend, Ralph, recently posted an article on his LinkedIn page from Harvard Business Review titled The Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief, by Scott Berinato. What Berinato wrote that caught my attention was, "If we can name it, perhaps we can manage it."

Berinato went on to talk about the types of emotions we are experiencing, such as the fear that our lives have changed irrevocably, the fear of economic crisis, and the fear of losing the connections that we count on for support. There is also, in Berinato’s words, and this is a big one for most of us, anticipatory grief that we are feeling.

"That’s it," I thought. That’s the tension and fear and unspoken weight hanging over most of us. What is going to happen next? I think we are all wondering just how bad it might be and how long it could possible last?

All human wisdom is summed up in these two words, -wait and hope.”

-The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas

Maybe the thing to keep in mind as leaders is that our people are experiencing the same difficult emotions, perhaps even more heightened because they are feeling even less in control of what happens next.

If we are in leadership positions, it is likely that we are part of a response group or in the daily decision-making loop. Under uncertainty and with underlying anxiety, our people trust that we are making decisions with the employees and organization top of mind. Most of us might be thinking, "of course we do that," but do we make sure to communicate how we are doing that clearly and often?  A calm and confident voice helps in times of uncertainly. A smile doesn’t hurt either, along with expressions of appreciation and your acknowledgement that these are trying times and we will get through them together.

Sometimes appreciation is providing lunch and sometimes it is a simple thank you. In these unprecedented times, it is doing our best to understand and help lighten the burden of worry for employees and members, or customers or clients, alike.

In times of uncertainty it is important to remember that emotions can spread quickly, and negative feelings, anxiety, and fear expressed out loud are often contagious. So are calm reassurance and positive energy.

The best leaders I’ve worked with have a genuinely caring and humble approach that I’ve noticed and try to emulate, which is to acknowledge what they don’t know and cannot control, express hope, and inspire appropriate action over the things that can be controlled.

Remember, each person in your organization wants to contribute to the cause and feel cared for as people. They also want to know your expectations and want to live up to them. They also want some indication of security which can be tough when you may not quite know where your company is headed over the next few months or years.

What I believe about leadership is that your presence and voice matters. In these unprecedented times, it may be through virtual meetings, phone calls, Web-ex, Zoom, text, or chat. Each of these things, with a quick check-in to allow people to share concerns and challenges, will help build confidence and resilience.

As leaders, keep your trusted confidantes close at hand and help each other see around corners. Acknowledge your own concerns and emotions and keep them managed as best you can. It is possible to thrive under trying conditions and to grow as a leader. It is also important to take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Burning yourself out as a leader isn’t going to help your organization through these challenging times, so find ways to center yourself and do things that you enjoy. I like to get out and walk each day, and I also enjoy writing. And, try not to misplace your sense of humor or gratitude and I’ll see you on the other side when life and work are a little more ‘normal.’

Take the very best care. Heck, the next time we see each other, maybe you’ll even get one of my best hugs!

Thank you for reading. Your feedback is welcome.

5 (2)


Deb Sparrow
Maine State Credit Union
Senior Vice President/CLO

Deb is Senior Vice President and Chief Lending Officer at Maine State Credit Union. She directs the retail functions as well as serving as a cultural champion and development leader. She still owns, and uses, the 1987 Rolodex given to her on her first day in banking and has that much experience in all types of lending. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series.



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