How to Rise as a Leader when Matters Seem Beyond Control


By Camille Nicita, President & CEO, Gongos, Inc. 

A company’s resilience and longevity are often contingent on leadership’s ability to handle adversity. But adversity comes in different shapes and sizes, so how do leaders respond to crises and how do they adapt when business landscapes evolve?

The prevailing expectation is that leaders should be able to predict the future and plan accordingly. Albeit a comforting thought, this is a myth. Executives are not exempt from the reality that us humans have limited control over what lies ahead. The most unpredictable of situations, like the 2007 financial collapse and the ongoing pandemic, are strong reminders of this.

A personal testimonial

Throughout my leadership journey, I’ve managed through two transformative crisis situations. One involved the sudden death of our company’s founder and my subsequently taking on the role of CEO, literally overnight. The other is the global COVID-19 outbreak, which has uprooted the way the entire world navigates.

Encouragingly, piloting a company through a crisis can pay positive dividends. According to survey data from PwC that polled over 2,000 senior-level executives, more than 42% of those who had faced a major crisis said they were in a “better place” subsequently. Some reported revenue growth coming due to their management of the crisis, and only 19% said their companies were in a worse spot afterward.

So, what can leaders do in the face of disruptive events to ensure resilience and provide value to stakeholders? In my experiences with the unimaginable, I’ve learned to accept that VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) is simply a part of being in business. With that, I’ve learned there are four fundamental things those of us charged with guiding organizations forward can control even in the most VUCA of environments.

Inspire your people with vision

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success,” said Henry Ford. These are potent words for the turmoil of 2020. Building a sense of unity bands people together. This requires employee allegiance, so they fight for the future of the company as a collective.

Leaders need to make this more of a priority. In fact, a Deloitte “Global Human Capital Trends” survey found that while 80% of respondents said 21st-century leadership has unique, new requirements vital to organizational success, only 30% noted they are developing leaders to meet those challenges.

Having a shared vision is of paramount importance in meeting challenges head-on. This requires the trust of your employees. Start by identifying goals for both yourself and your employees to reach together. Then, to successfully activate on your vision, help them help you by investing in their potential and lead by example by showing them you’re also constantly evolving.

Lean into emotional intelligence

When your reality seems unrecognizable and emotions are running high, emotional intelligence—a key soft skill—saves the day. This means mastering social and self-awareness, along with self and relationship management. Through the crises I’ve traversed, I’ve found self-awareness and social awareness most crucial.

The first step is to reflect inwardly to gauge your emotional state and ensure you are implementing self-care strategies. It might sound selfish to prioritize focusing on yourself, but you need your mind at a place that allows for empathy so you can effectively aid others. This ties into social awareness and having a comprehensive understanding of the way in which others view you. Garnering this information is only possible when your employees feel secure that you’ll treat exchanges with respect and vulnerability.

Lean into action

The paralysis that accompanies over-analysis often comes to the forefront when we’re faced with uncertainty. Leaders need to shrug off indecision and know it is possible to build true value and innovation during predicaments. Instead of aiming for perfection, rely on action, learning, iteration, and a commitment to excellence. McKinsey’s research finds 57% of C-suite professionals say their decision-making time is ineffective.

Embrace failure, or, better yet, remove it from your vocabulary. Open your thinking to experimentation and adjustment, and revel in challenges that force innovation. Intuition and strong opinions are sometimes lost in the world of metrics and measurables, so combine these two elements for impactful actions centered around the needs and aspirations of your stakeholders.

Instill stakeholder confidence

Surviving and thriving through a crisis is best served by a people-centric approach to business. The companies that come out stronger will be led by professionals who care about their customers, staff, and the broader community. This can be achieved with a strategy of reciprocity and reassurance.

Engagement, trust, and loyalty from customers and employees are won by creating value and consistency. Ask yourself: How are you continuing to create a mutually beneficial value exchange with these key stakeholders, even during a crisis? Spend time asking questions, listening to needs, and empathizing, while at the same time providing reassurance and demonstrating a true focus on win-wins.

As reassurance grows, continue to pull together your team, customers, and the business community. Give employees new growth opportunities so they have a hand in building a better company. Talk to clients about conquering pain points together for mutual gain. Nurture your peer network to explore best practices, share stories, and offer your wisdom. Elevate out of crisis mode and into prosperity, together.

The takeaway

Control will remain an apparition outside your reach. So, during calamitous events and normal times alike, I encourage fellow business leaders to rely on the four principles above. They’ve certainly helped me find clarity and confidence, and lift my company forward regardless of the type or level of VUCA present.

The current crisis will not be the final disruptor. Defining moments are yet to come. Employing positive and effective responses to these moments can generate positive outcomes and a brighter future.

As published in CEOWorld Magazine.