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The key to leading in a world of uncertainty

Life, and business, are inherently uncertain as this last tumultuous year has reminded us. The secret to success in both involves realising that uncertainty and change are inevitable and inescapable – and embracing them both. The secret to success as a leader is to help your people do precisely that, writes Campbell Macpherson.

user iconEmma Musgrave 12 April 2021 Big Law
The key to leading in a world of uncertainty
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Leadership today is all about leading change. It is about helping people get comfortable with uncertainty. It is about helping your people want to change.

The bad news is that 88 per cent of change initiatives fail, according to a 2016 study by Bain & Company. The same is true for business strategies, mergers and acquisitions: seven out of eight fail to deliver what they set out to achieve. This article is designed to help you to be the one in eight that succeeds.

To succeed in today’s uncertain times, every business needs to enhance the ability of its leaders to lead change and the ability of its people to embrace change.


I used to think that VUCA was merely an acronym invented to keep academics occupied. Now we are living it. And we have learnt a great deal about our ability to lead and embrace change during this incredibly volatile year; a year that has also been packed with uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity thanks to COVID-19.

We have learnt that we can embrace change, even difficult change that is forced upon us, as long as we have a strong emotional reason for doing so – and leaders we trust.

We have learnt that mental health matters. No one performs well when they are anxious, and we have all been anxious at some point during this last year. We all need help to perform at our best – and the best solution is honing their ability to embrace change.

We have learnt that leadership is not about business models or balance sheets or systems or processes. It is about people – and that people are messy, emotional beings. Emotion is four times more powerful than logic when it comes to change, so we leaders need to appeal to the emotions of our people if they, and we, are to succeed.

As we cover in our “Leading Change” and Embracing Change” workshops and webinars, successful change leadership also requires:

  • Giving our people complete clarity of what you are trying to achieve and why. Your people not only need to know what numbers they need to hit, but also what the future will look like and what actually needs to change. They also need to know why – and the reason will need to be compelling.
  • Engaging our people in identifying the implications of the change. Every decision has consequences, even good change has its downsides – and your people know what these are. Successful leaders enable their people to air their concerns and fears regarding the future, because once aired, they can then be addressed – constructively. Today’s leadership requires genuine engagement. It requires listening.
  • Realising it’s OK not to know. Honesty and transparency, like culture, start at the top. Leaders aren’t supposed to have all the answers, and your people understand this. Strong leaders admit when they don’t know and work with their people to find the answers.
  • Flexibility based on strength. Strategy today needs to be flexible, but that doesn’t mean it will be weak. A flexible strategy is the strongest strategy of all, as long as it is based upon a firm understanding of your company’s strategic fundamentals – who it exists to serve, and why; what makes it special; and what gives it the right to win.
  • A change-ready culture. What culture have you and your fellow leaders created? Is it one where people are comfortable in questioning the status quo? Is it one where people are encouraged to voice their concerns and doubts? Where they are invited to challenge? Is it one where they look for new ways of doing things? Are they ready, willing and able to embrace change? They need to be – for their own wellbeing and the health of your business.
One of the greatest gifts we can give our people is the power to change. We humans don’t change simply because we are told to; we only change if we want to. As leaders, it is our job to help our people want to change.

Their success and the success of your business depend upon it.

Campbell Macpherson is a sought-after speaker and international business adviser on leadership, strategy and change who splits his time between Australia and the UK. He is a keynote speaker, executive fellow of Henley Business School and author.