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How to thrive as a leader facing uncertainty, ambiguity and change

Uncertainty is a fact of life and leadership, but we can affect how we respond to it and how we inspire our teams forward.

5 min read


How to thrive as a leader facing uncertainty, ambiguity and change

Unsplash photo/SmartBrief illustration

Many leaders today are feeling flummoxed about how to lead through uncertainty. I see leaders wrestling with that challenge on a daily basis. I coach them on how to navigate the fast-changing business landscape while inspiring trust and confidence from their people despite the ambiguity that persists.

Uncertainty makes us deeply uncomfortable. It plays a major role in causing stress, followed by the negative repercussions of that stress. The uncertain brain demands more energy from the body, to the point that the body can become overtaxed, leading to various mental and physical consequences, according to a 2017 article in the journal Progress in Neurobiology. The researchers call this phenomenon the “selfish brain,” as it will eagerly sap the body of its energy in an attempt to find certainty within uncertainty. The brain enters a hypervigilant state that demands extra cerebral energy. 

To change how uncertainty affects us, we need to change how we respond to it, I tell my clients. They have what it takes to not just persevere through uncertainty, but to thrive in it, I assure them. To thrive within stress and uncertainty, you need a “seize the day” mentality that emanates confidence, capability and the willingness to take risks. Now is the time to radiate executive presence as a leader, in these five key ways.

1. Embrace disruption

The disruption that brings uncertainty also provides opportunities. It shakes us out of complacency with existing processes and habits, leading us to question what might work better. Novel solutions often emerge from times of great transformation. Embrace the idea of change and work with it, rather than feeling powerless. Emphasize to your team that disruption gives you an exciting opportunity. Your company might navigate the changes ahead better than others, coming out in a stronger position, for instance.

Maintaining the status quo is not necessarily the wisest course of action. Many people stay in jobs that don’t challenge them because they feel comfortable. Many employees don’t take risks because they fear the consequences.

Assure your employees that trying dramatically different ideas can propel them to higher levels of success. Sometimes it takes a major event that’s outside of our control to remind us of that.

2. Take bold decisive actions

As a leader, you can give your people a measure of certainty by taking decisive action. While it might seem to make sense on a rational level to wait for all the information before making a decision, at a certain point, the benefits of waiting are outweighed by the negative consequences. People start to feel more anxious and more afraid when they don’t know your course of action. Introduce and implement your decisions with confidence, which will assuage fears about uncertainty.

3. Propel ingenuity

When people feel they can directly influence the course of events, they’ll feel less helpless, lowering their stress. Make sure that everyone knows they have an important job to do in navigating the changes you’re experiencing. People who have agency in a situation will stay more focused on the positive, while coming up with creative solutions that might transcend prior achievements. Empower each person to think outside of the box, bringing new ideas to the table. Emphasize a healthy curiosity about how to respond to the change, inviting novel solutions.

4. Stay agile

Change will be continuously occurring; the atmosphere of ambiguity will not end anytime soon. Emphasizing agility will poise your team to continue responding to change effectively. To build their confidence, remind people of your past successes that emerged from staying agile. As the ability to handle ambiguity becomes more a part of your collective identity, uncertainty will have less of a negative effect on your team.

5. Assemble a team of advisers

Draw upon your collective wisdom by assembling a team of trusted advisers with a variety of perspectives. Analyze the situation together so you can understand it as well as possible from every angle. Collaboratively lay out the best course of action. Maintain a positive tone by affirming that you’re thrilled to have all of these brilliant minds working on the problem. By bringing them all together, you’ll also boost your own credibility, showing you’ve worked hard to solicit all relevant information.

Do these five things, and your team will rally around you, feeling capable of managing the change. As you work to navigate the change together, you’ll build aptitudes that will help you maneuver through any disruption with skill. Care for your own wellbeing every step of the way, which will set a great example for others. Use a daily meditation routine to help you stay grounded, and urge others to try a daily stress-relieving practice that works for them.

The road won’t be easy, but together, you have what it takes to emerge on top!


A skilled executive coach can provide clear direction on how to manage ambiguity and transitions. Through webinar trainings and virtual coaching sessions, Joel Garfinkle helps clients across the country become the leaders who can guide their team through challenging times. He recently presented to leaders of a large organization in the healthcare field on how to lead through uncertainty. Subscribe to his Fulfillment at Work Newsletter and receive the free e-book “41 Proven Strategies to Get Promoted Now!” You can also view 75 of Joel’s 2-minute motivational videos on his YouTube channel.

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