Leadership is challenging in even the best of times, but when everything gets turned upside down it can feel particularly difficult. It’s during times of uncertainty and stress, however, when the best leaders rise to the top. 

While much of what it takes to be a good leader is the same in good times and bad, there are a few particular skills to pay extra attention to when you or your team face serious challenges or uncertainty.

Focus, focus, focus

In normal times, most of us have the luxury to be at least somewhat distracted from time to time. But, when things get turned upside down, distraction is a serious problem. Depending on the source of the upheaval, we can face a multitude of things vying for our attention. It’s up to us as leaders to quickly identify what is most crucial and focus all of our attention on these key activities.

What to do now:

If you are in the midst of uncertainty now, spend an hour identifying those things that are mission critical for you and your team to keep moving forward (e.g., serving existing clients, communicating with key stakeholders, etc.). Other activities (e.g., long-term strategic initiatives, process improvements, etc.) get attention only as necessary and as you are able to address them.

You may find that it’s difficult to keep your focus on these key functions. If so, cut yourself some slack. Maintaining focus is difficult, even in the best of times. Aim for several, shorter periods (about an hour or so) of sustained focus each day. You’ll be amazed at the kind of progress you can make.

What to do moving forward: 

As you return to a more normal state (and you will), make improving focus a point of development for yourself. Practice eliminating distractions and bringing your attention to one thing at a time. You’ll be better equipped the next time you face a challenge.


When things get complicated, people look to their leaders to provide a sense of stability, direction and assurance. To effectively provide these things, we have to communicate. And communicate. And communicate.

During challenging and uncertain times, your team will be dealing with a wide variety of emotions – fear, frustration, anger, sadness. Each of these emotions can interfere with the way we generally process information. That means that at least some of what you say won’t be heard clearly the first time. Even if it is, it’s likely to be swept away by emotion later on. Therefore, it’s imperative that we communicate early and often.

What to do now:

Get clear on what your team needs to hear from you most right now. Be sure that you’re only focusing on the most important things – don’t muddy or overcomplicate your message with too many details. Rather, plan for a series of communications, delivering timely information and helping people focus their attention on the right things at the right time.

What to do moving forward:

If you notice a tendency in yourself to “hunker down” or crawl inside your office during times of stress make a note of this. Especially for more reserved leaders, the challenge of communicating when they themselves feel uncertain can be a big hurdle. As things return to normal, you can work toward overcoming this challenge by making communication more a part of your routine and nudging yourself gently outside your comfort zone.

Do what it takes to keep yourself calm

Even as leaders, most of us are not immune to the emotional toll of crises or uncertainty. It is critically important, however, that we are able to manage our emotions in a way that allows us to stay calm and even-tempered in the most difficult times.

What to do now:

In the face of stress, it’s tempting to “push through”, denying yourself the rest, exercise and other key support that you need to rise to the challenges you face. It’s crucial, however, that you identify the key activities and routines that allow you to remain calm and able to respond constructively to what’s happening around you. You may not be able to fully implement these, but do everything possible to maintain your own sense of resiliency by focusing on sleep, moving your body and eating (reasonably) well.

What to do moving forward:

If you’ve never taken the time to develop routines for self-care, make it a priority when things return to normal. These don’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. Just a handful of activities that keep your body and mind working at their best. A simple stretching routine. A ten minute walk. A mindfulness or prayer practice.  Whatever works best for you to clear out the mental clutter and keep calm.

Uncertainty is an uncomfortable reality for many leaders but is often unavoidable. By learning how to cope in the most trying circumstances, you can equip yourself for the challenges you are sure to face from time to time.