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Tips for Leading Your Team Through Uncertainty

Great leaders lead from the heart during turbulent times

Over the past week, every one of us scrambled to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic - and adapt to unanticipated changes. “What is our guidance for working remotely?” “How can students receive meals with schools closed?” “How do we mobilize teachers to teach online?”

We witnessed leaders bringing powerful strategic thinking to these moments. But as you set up Zoom accounts or hit send on parent robocalls, ask yourself: How are you attending to the human in these times of uncertainty?

At Leading Elephants, we are passionate about bringing “head, heart, and backbone” to the complex challenges of leadership. At these moments, we see smart leaders making courageous judgment calls. Great leaders, though, also lead from the heart during turbulent times. People are feeling unmoored as anxiety surfaces about their families, our country and the changing world at work. Have you paused to ask yourself “What do my people need of my leadership during this time of unprecedented change?”


We offer here three suggestions here for a human-centered approach:

Pause To Connect

When big questions need to be addressed on a tight timeline, our impulse can be to jump in and problem solve. At the beginning of each meeting, take a moment to check in. Ask how a team member is doing, provide space for group sharing, or pause to acknowledge the weight of the situation and breathe together. Even a moment to release the stress helps people be less reactive and more connected. When the team feels in it together, they work more powerfully together to do purposeful, people-focused problem solving. Consider the power of the pause when everything feels urgent.

Give Grace

Extend grace to others, now more than ever. We all respond to stress differently, and we don’t know the pressures another is carrying. Perhaps a team member is worried about her grandfather in a nursing home. A client may be anxious about child care. A colleague may be wondering how to keep her team in a job when it’s not clear what their new job duties are. As a leader, give space for concerns to be shared - and encourage your teams to give extra grace to what may be under the surface for others. Ask your team: What do you need right now? How are we helping each other?

Ground in the New Reality

Information is coming at us fast, and the response to COVID-19 is rapidly evolving. During this time, the team can either grind to a halt or waste time on activities people no longer care about.

Suddenly, two things are simultaneously true:

  1. every plan you had needs to be changed in some way; and

  2. the north star you are aiming for (eg kids learning, caring for our communities, getting better as an organization) is still the same.

In times of rapid change, your team needs three things: clarity on the next step in front of them, the stability of a north star and the inspiration of a silver lining. Take time to reflect together on the next week and what’s most important now. Next, create spaces to recalibrate against your north star (“If we are still aiming for X, how do we get there in new ways?”). Lastly, look for opportunities to see bright spots (“Can teachers who no longer have 6 periods of instruction write rock-star curriculum?”) Small rituals to ground in your new reality can create a sense of purpose and inspiration during uncertain times.


Pause. Give grace. Ground in the new reality. As our local, national, and global community seeks to address an unprecedented challenge, we believe that it requires all elements of leadership - our head, our backbone, and especially our hearts. Holding both the “what” and the “how” as a leader in moments of crisis is difficult. But doing so ensures that you are building community, connection and opportunity in a time when that is deeply needed.


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