How Can Leaders Overcome Uncertainty?

pic for uncertainty

The east coast of the United States is in a wait and see mode this weekend as we brace for a possible hurricane. Weather forecasts are all over the place with different predictions and possibilities of the path the hurricane will take. Will it hit land or will it go out to sea? If it does hit land, where exactly will it come ashore? Who will be affected and what will the damage look like? For many of us, dealing with uncertainty is unsettling as we immediately remember the challenges we faced with previous hurricanes.

After we get over our initial fears and concerns, many of us spring into action buying supplies for our homes (I still don’t understand why everyone buys bread, eggs and milk) and readjust our plans. We begin to prepare for the unknown.

In the same way, leaders constantly face uncertainty in our jobs and careers. Team members leave at what seems the most inopportune time. New information is added into the mix to analyze. Deadlines are moved up. Another higher priority project hits our desk. Our personal lives need our attention. How will everything get done and how can we possibly lead with so many missing pieces and uncertainty?

To overcome uncertainty and not let it get the best of us, leaders:


When a significant change that we were not expecting knocks on our door, we need to stay clear minded. We can do this by stepping back and carefully evaluating what has happened. The worst thing we can do is panic or become paralyzed. De-stress by closing your eyes and taking 3 deep breaths.


Whatever we do, we must see the glass half full when we are faced with ambiguity.

  • When we are positive we are less fearful.
  • When we are positive we can see opportunities.
  • When we are positive we can make better decisions.
  • When we are positive we can help others deal better with uncertainty.


In times of uncertainty a big picture may be too overwhelming to tackle. Carefully looking at the different pieces that may be affecting the unclear challenge, can be helpful. Make a list of the individual steps and how you might approach resolving them. Be as specific as possible.


Once we know the steps we want to take, we need to decide which to tackle first. When working with managers in crisis, they often will say, “But all the steps are number one priority.” They all might be important but we need to choose. This piece trips many of us up and we avoid action. Prioritizing is key.


There’s nothing more comforting during times of uncertainty than working alongside someone else who understands our concerns.

  • Set up a meeting with your team or colleagues to roll out the critical issues
  • Brainstorm as many resolutions as time permits
  • Draw on the strengths and talents of people who surround you
  • Keep everyone informed with up to date information


During times of ambiguity we need to be flexible leaders, willing to make quick adjustments in a short timeframe. Working with a manager who lost several team members all at once, required the surviving teammates to take on unfamiliar responsibilities. It actually went so well because new skills and knowledge were learned and added to people’s toolkits.


The upshot of facing uncertainty is of course ending up with a strong outcome. So my mantra is always: Keep your eye on the prize. When we follow these beneficial strategies we can overcome uncertainty. (I’ll keep you posted about the hurricane).

How do you lead in times of uncertainty? What strategies have worked for you?

Photo Credit: FlickrCC NASA

6 thoughts on “How Can Leaders Overcome Uncertainty?

  1. Uncertainty can be paralyzing. I’ve found that when I don’t know what to do next because I’m not 100% sure of what’s around the corner doing something is better than doing nothing. When I stand still, fear takes hold and my calmer thinking flies out the window. Getting in motion yet keeping an open mind to flex as more information comes available has been the key to moving forward instead of stopping short.

    Great advice here, Terri! Will share!

    ~ Alli

  2. Thanks Alli! Your journey in Australia has shown us the growth and learning a leader can embrace if they are open and take action.

    I agree that paralysis is the opposite of taking action and we need to at least take baby steps to overcome uncertainty or ambiguity. I am working with many managers who let their fears take over. It’s ok to feel anxious and then it’s so important to commit to propelling ourselves forward.

    As always, I appreciate your insightful comments Alli!

  3. Wonderful article, Terri!

    I find that 1) prioritizing, and 2) taking small steps are two excellent ways of surviving in fast-moving environments.

    When we prioritize, we make the important things first in our schedule—when we still have the most energy.

    When we break the task down into small steps, we can begin to visualize how we will accomplish each task.

    Great advice!

  4. It’s a great idea to tackle the most important items when we are most energized. Even though it may be seem easier to complete the simpler tasks first, those actions may not be critical. Our high focus should be on what is really a priority.

    Learning how to prioritize properly can be challenging when we think so many things on our list are all number ones. We need to be honest that we cannot do everything at once and if we need to ask for help, we make sure we find the best people to support us.

    And yes, breaking down goals into smaller steps can bring clarity to any uncertain project.

    Thanks LaRae for your wonderful additions!

  5. Great point, Karin about what happens when leaders over react and make things even worse.

    I have seen people play out in their heads things that never come to be. That’s why staying calm and collecting the facts to clarify the real issues, can be so helpful.

    Thanks Karin!

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