Article · 6 minute read

Leadership Lessons Part 3 - Where Should You be Focusing?

By Hannah Mullaney & Richard Williams – 28th February 2022

The work landscape is rapidly changing. In these times of unparalleled change and uncertainty, it is more important than ever that organizations develop their leaders and foster leadership potential to thrive through these challenging times. 

In the first two parts of our leadership lessons series, we looked at the value of empathy and the value of impact, today we look at how you can develop leaders to lead effectively through change and uncertainty. 

Developing Leaders to Lead Through Uncertainty

“Smart leaders aren’t thinking about the next phase as a return to what we had before but are taking the opportunity to ask how we will reimagine our organization.” (McKinsey & Company)

There has arguably been no greater example of uncertainty, and the work landscape rapidly changing, than the Covid-19 pandemic. Thinking has now shifted from initial thoughts about ‘when will things get back to normal?’ and ‘when will the economy bounce back?’ to the question of ‘are we entering a new era of work, where work habits, workplaces and working relationships will be entirely redefined?’ 

With no guidebook for how best to deal with a global crisis, many decision makers are now trying to strike the balance between cautiousness and over-reaction, and while ‘playing it safe’ is a sensible approach, playing it too safe also comes with its own set of risks. Leaders had, and continue to have, a crucial role in ensuring that employees remain engaged, content and motivated during what continues to be a very challenging time for many.

According to our own research, at the start of the pandemic, leadership activity focused on the skills required for crisis leadership, leadership agility, and inspirational/motivational leadership. It was all very reactionary. The focus now is moving forward in a dramatically different world of work, taking issues that had previously felt very strategic and future-focused and making them a present-day reality.

More than ever, the pandemic has shown that leaders have a critical role in ensuring a positive employee experience during times of challenge and stress. Businesses need to be prepared for equally challenging times in the future and will want to futureproof their leadership pipelines, ensuring that future leaders are also able to ensure a positive employee experience, whatever the world throws at them.

To be effective during times of uncertainty, leaders must:

Be adaptable to change – Successful leaders are not only able to quickly change tact themselves but also help their team evolve in line with the organization’s needs. These individuals recognize that leadership is a learning process and see mistakes as opportunities to better themselves and their decision-making skills.

Create a framework – In times of uncertainty, levels of anxiety increase as people search for definitive answers about what might happen in the longer term. Leaders who focus on what is ‘known’, provide clarity and direction to their team (and are honest when they don’t have the answers) tend to get the best results. It is important that they stay open to new possibilities and opportunities, and remain flexible as new insights emerge.  

Stay connected – Effective leaders ensure that they stay connected and maintain regular contact with their team, especially in times of remote working. It is also important that they provide a platform for team members to voice concerns and are open to questions.

Listen to their people – Effective communication skills are key to building trust with team members and getting them to buy into a leader’s vision. Successful leaders understand that listening can be more empowering than speaking and that considering other people’s perspectives is crucial to harmony.

Not shy away from discomfort – It is important that leaders ‘get comfortable with being uncomfortable’, if only in the short term. In times of uncertainty, there is a tendency to push through discomfort with intense action. But leaders must be willing to stay in heated discussions and help others stay engaged, as well as creating a space for people to disconnect when they need to.

According to a US survey of 2,000 professionals, 35% identify their boss as a major source of stress at work and 80% say that a change in direct management or leadership has an impact on their stress levels (Apollo Technical). The importance of effective leadership as part of a good employee experience cannot be underestimated. 

Lessons from Mergers & Acquisitions

We conducted research a few years ago looking specifically at leadership in M&A settings, which found that successful M&A leaders balance direction-setting with bringing others along on the integration journey.

Such leaders are masterful at the art of people integration and respectful of the science of project management. They act decisively with just the right amount of deliberation. They’re inclusive and inspirational, and they see change as inevitable and invaluable in bringing companies together in new ways that deliver real value to shareholders, customers and employees.

The following four leadership styles were found to be critically important to success in M&A leadership, and leadership development activities would do well to focus in on these areas:

Cultivating an inspiring vision: Successful leaders motivate others while asserting themselves in their leadership roles. Integrations are tough, tiring and often tedious. Being able to provide a clear pathway while continuing to motivate teams to work hard enables leaders to achieve a diverse set of integration goals on predetermined timelines.

Crisis handling: With integrations, expect the unexpected. Being able to react to crises when they arise and be decisive about how to handle them enables integration leaders to stay on course when the inevitable occurs. Providing the necessary leadership to work through the situation and get the integration back on track is a key skillset of successful integration leaders.

Managing change: Integrations are synonymous with change, regardless of the integration strategy. Successful integration leaders seek out change and recognize that doing things differently is often a key reason for the deal itself. Proactively embracing change (versus shying away from it) enables the leader to get things done differently than in legacy organizations.

Seeking Growth: Successful integration leaders possess an innate drive to achieve, which helps to sustain them and others over the long haul. They also need to inspire growth in others by challenging old approaches that others may seek to maintain. Knowing when and how to challenge others to get out of their comfort zones is a key success factor.

There are also a few things successful integration leaders tend not to be:

Supporters: Attending too much to the needs of others makes it more difficult for leaders to achieve challenging goals, especially those related to people aspects of the integration.

Regulators: Leaders who prefer established principles and procedures are less capable of acting as change leaders. Most integrations will deviate from any rigid rules and guidelines as the nuances of each transaction call for new ways of thinking.

Over-thinkers: Too much analysis can slow down integration activities and often leads to missing key milestones. The talent for knowing when to move ahead with the data available enables the integration leader to stay on track while making decisions that deliver real value.

Top Tips for Development

38% of new leaders fail within the first 18 months (

Leadership development activities, such as those using a Leadership Impact or Leadership Risk report for one-to-one sessions, can increase individuals’ self-awareness and understanding.  

This is extremely powerful for recognizing how their leadership behaviors and potential risk areas will impact the outcomes they need to deliver and the culture they need create.

Things to consider:
  • Think about how to reimagine the organization moving forward, rather than returning to where it was, and what you will need from your future leaders to do this.
  • Look at ways to develop future leaders that builds an increased self-awareness, better equipping them to drive trust and stay connected with their teams. Do this in a way that facilitates open and honest dialogue.
  • Keep development activity in line with organizational outcomes, objectives and results; be prepared for these to shift and ensure there is strength in depth in your leadership pipeline to be able to handle such shifts.
  • Look at both individual and group strengths in your leadership pipeline to create a shared sense of identity and purpose in future leadership teams. Ensure everyone is collectively aware how they can emerge successfully by playing to each other’s strengths and supporting challenge areas.

In times of change and uncertainty, strong leadership needs to come to the fore to ensure that organizations don’t falter. Make sure that you are giving your leadership talent the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in these times.    

Find Out More

To find out more about how we can help transform your leadership development, visit or email [email protected] to find out more about our full-cycle leadership consultancy services.