When Control Is Just An Illusion, What Can Leaders Count On?


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

Business leaders are expected to have foresight — so much so that a false sense of security can emerge. Having been through “once-in-a-lifetime” crisis scenarios twice now, I’ve learned to let go of that mirage. And I’m not alone. PwC found that 69% of the business leaders surveyed have experienced at least one corporate crisis within the last five years; the average number experienced is three.

The hopeful prospect is that 42% of those leaders consider themselves to be in a better place than they were before. And a positive correlation exists between company resilience and its value to investors. So how can leaders ensure business resilience when their worlds aren’t right-side up?

I believe the answer lies in embracing the concept of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), which very much describes the business scenario I found myself in when I became an owner and CEO overnight in 2012, following the sudden loss of our company’s founder. Years later, a different kind of disaster, resulting from a global pandemic, disrupted our company’s sense of normalcy.

Both times, accepting that we as leaders only have control over a finite set of variables led me to take stock in four basic principles. They’ve helped build my immunity to adversity, and given the rapidly changing business environment we’re operating in, I think they can help build yours too.

Create A Sense Of Unity

“Together is better,” an idea championed by Simon Sinek, rings especially relevant in trying times. A strong sense of unity makes the future of any entity feel so much more worth fighting for. Employee allegiance and alignment don’t happen by accident, though. A sense of being a part of something bigger than ourselves takes careful crafting.

Start by setting a meaningful, inspiring vision to galvanize your people around. Then, put it into practice by fostering two-way trust. On the one hand, you need to believe and invest in your people’s potential. On the other hand, they need to believe in your continued development and evolution as their leader. So view your business through the lens of the long game and show your employees what that looks like. Hold close the mantra “what got you here won’t get you there” and live it. Lead by example, each day focusing on doing the right thing that day and outperforming the you of yesterday.

Strengthen Your Soft Skills

I’ve found that survival of the fittest is about soft skills, not the traditionally touted hard, technical skills. And when emotions are running high, emotional intelligence (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management) is an essential soft skill.

In my experience, the most challenging emotional intelligence competencies to hone amid crises have been self-awareness and social awareness. Self-awareness requires an understanding of your own emotional state and a focus on self-care. While this can feel selfish, it’s anything but, because your cup must be full in order to fill those of others. As for social awareness, which involves organizational empathy, understanding how others perceive you is essential. But to gain their continuous feedback, you have to make them comfortable sharing through vulnerability, respectfully listening and taking their words to heart.

Embody A Bias For Action

“Nothing happens until something moves.” These words of Albert Einstein are just as fitting for corporate crises as physics. It’s easy to paralyze yourself in an effort to arrive at precision prior to taking action, especially when uncertainty is off the charts. But these predicaments are often the ones that call for creating new value — possibly introducing process and/or product innovation — in record time.

Rather than striving for perfection, strive for excellence, which can come through gaining key stakeholder input at the onset and iterating along the way. Instead of fearing failure, remove it from your vernacular. Be brave and open enough to experiment and adapt. Embrace forced, fast innovation as an opportunity to evolve with purpose. In a world where data is trying to win, it’s easy to let metrics and dashboards be the master drivers of decision making. But combining data with intuition is a stronger recipe for effective action, breeding human-centered innovations that actually happen.

Impart Reassurance And Reciprocity

Research shows that resilient companies facilitate continued value creation by embracing a people-first ethos over a business-first one. They take care of their employees, customers and the business communities in which they operate. I’ve relied on a two-pronged model to do this: reassurance and reciprocity.

Reassurance mostly applies to employees and customers. Their continued loyalty is contingent upon them knowing that they are still valued and that you are the same business, dedicated to delivering the same level of quality. So proactively communicate with them. Listen to their questions and concerns, understand them as individuals, ensure they’re okay and reassure them that the business will move forward successfully.

Once you’ve provided reassurance, enlist employees, customers and business community peers to move toward a brighter, mutually beneficial future together. With employees, this could mean new opportunities to grow and help transform the business into a stronger state than it was pre-crisis. With clients, it could mean co-creating solutions to unmet needs and pain points. And with industry peers, this could mean leaning on each other for best practices to benefit the overall ecosystem you exist within.

Crisis As A Catalyst For Growth

While control is just an illusion, especially during a disaster, the power of these four principles is real. They can lift a leader up from quandary to clarity and instill the unwavering confidence necessary to carry a company forward, whatever the source of uncertainty.

It’s not a matter of if, but when the next defining moment of disruption will strike. And the phenomenon coined “posttraumatic growth” by psychologists points to the powerful potential of trauma to propel positive change. If you respond to tough times in the right ways, you can count on rewarding outcomes. You can expect to find your company in a better place in the aftermath.

As published in Forbes.