It’s Business Unusual: Being a Leader During Turbulent Times

Is it just me, or is everyone grappling with a persistent sense of unease right now? No matter who I talk to, there seems to be a pervasive feeling of anxiety, restlessness, and feeling stuck in the same place. 

Given that we’ve just had our national elections with an unprecedented outcome, one would expect a greater sense of anticipation and excitement in the cultural conversation. Unfortunately, as the hype of the results wears off and we all realise that change isn’t an overnight endeavour, any fleeting excitement has dissipated and the same feeling of malaise persists. 

We can at least take some comfort in knowing this isn’t a new – or even unique – shared experience. It’s been in the works for several years. I told one of my clients during our recent coaching session that this is business unusual. With so much political and economic uncertainty, coupled with global turbulence, stress and anxiety have (unfortunately) become our constant companions, especially in the workplace. 

So can leaders push back and rally their teams against stress, anxiety and uncertainty, especially when we’re living in such uncertain times?

It’s Not Just You, Everyone is Feeling Stuck

Rest assured, you’re not alone if you can relate. In many of my one-on-one development sessions, I’ve spoken with leaders who are surprised at how I’m able to pinpoint and articulate the opaque emotions they’re experiencing. It’s because this feeling of being “stuck”, no matter what you do or where you go, is a global collective experience. 

It will be there, irrespective of whether you change jobs, corporations or even countries. The World Uncertainty Index’s long-term upward trajectory illustrates that while our global anxieties have greatly abated since 2020, it’s starting to climb once again. 

This is evidence that we’re not experiencing this feeling in isolation – everyone across all industries and verticals feels anxious and uncertain to a greater or lesser degree. Things are not “in flow” and we can’t quite articulate why, but they just don’t. The problem is that we’re all trying very hard to carry on like this isn’t the case, and it’s impacting our mental health and wellbeing and that of our teams’. 

Where Are We Going Wrong?

A few years ago, when fear and anxiety were at their highest, there was an intense focus on strategy and shifting to evolve with the times. This was out of necessity, sure, but leaders had to take time to think and strategise to save their operations. There was also a great focus on individual and team mental health. 

Now, it feels like everyone is attempting to play catch up to business as usual. I’ve seen a noticeable lack of collaboration between leaders and their teams, as well as an intense focus on results, but enough time or strategic focus on the quality of those results. 

Leaders don’t have enough time to think, strategise and draw inspiration from innovations in neighbouring industries. Bigger picture thinking is not taking centre stage and strategy and results are suffering because of it. Resilience is a crucial leadership skill and I think it’s being underutilised right now, more on that later.

We’ve also become disconnected from the concept of mental health in the workplace. During Covid, there was a great emphasis on prioritising mental health and wellbeing but that’s largely dropped off the radar now, as companies push for results first and regain momentum. This has left employees burnt out and exhausted, on top of feeling stressed and uncertain about local and global economic security. 

As Leaders, We Need to Think Differently

It’s important to note that there’s no single solution to this problem. Tackling stress, worry, anxiety, and other negative emotions caused by the turbulent times we live in requires a mix of cognitive and practical strategies. To begin, leaders need to shift their focus and thinking. 

You need to understand where you’re at as a business – what is the external environment impacting your organisation? What are the driving forces? What are the trends? 

At the same time, you need to keep your eye on other industries to assess how they’re tackling change and uncertainty, both internally and externally. What innovations are they coming up with in response? How are they viewing challenges and are there lessons you could bring into your organisation?

Lastly, there’s never been a better time to reevaluate your current leadership style. In the context that you find yourself now, is your leadership style still appropriate? Are there some aspects of yourself that you need to modify or change to ensure that your actions as a leader are reaching and motivating the people you lead?

It’s not enough to work hard, we need to work strategically, and sometimes that requires more dedication to vision and strategy than short-term results. When the environment around us is changing so frequently and there’s so much turbulence, you need to rely on your ability to see the bigger picture and the possibilities within. Then, it’s important to share that vision with your team to reassure them that you’re guiding them as needed and translate that vision into actionable strategies so everyone knows what they need to be doing. 

It’s Ok to Not Feel in Flow Right Now

Remember that it’s ok to not feel ok. As leaders, we might often feel an invisible pressure to be “always on” in terms of positivity and optimism. It’s perfectly natural to feel “out of sync” for lack of a better word and feel worry or uncertainty as a result. Recognising and acknowledging those feelings are the first steps towards taking positive action, after all. But just know this – you’re not alone in what you’re experiencing, it seems to be a universal challenge to both business and leadership right now. 

If it’s any consolation, we can always blame it on old mercurial Mercury being in retrograde for most of this year. It officially ended on April 25th, but that doesn’t mean its disastrous impacts on communication and emotional well-being disappear instantly. Regardless of its origins, we live in turbulent times and that turbulence unfortunately isn’t going away anytime soon. 

Business unusual is the name of the game right now and we need to start adjusting the rulebook so we can get the possible results while protecting our teams’ mental health and motivating them to persevere through the uncertainty.