Leading in the Midst of Uncertainty

This blog post was originally published in November of 2017.

With less than two weeks before federal funding lapses on Dec. 8, the odds of a government shutdown continue to grow in dramatic fashion. In fact, President Donald Trump expressed earlier this year that the United States needs “a good ‘shutdown.’” And just this Tuesday, the President tweeted, “I don’t see a deal!” resulting in Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pulling out of the scheduled White House meeting.

In the midst of tense and seemingly intractable political negotiations around the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, proposed border wall, extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and recent tax reform proposal, lawmakers, lobbyists and other government employees are left wondering whether another shutdown is imminent.

For those working in public service, such looming unknowns — Will the government remain open? Will my programs be cut or continued? — can create a number of management challenges. Christopher Dorobek spoke with Tom Fox, Vice President of Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service, to discuss how government employees can demonstrate strong, effective leadership and manage their responsibilities, even when the future seems uncertain.

Part of the challenge is the absence of clear information from the top about what a broader reorganization or restructuring of government might look like. “Details are coming out in bits and pieces, but in the midst of that, leaders have a responsibility to figure out what to do without much information,” said Fox. “How do you keep yourself and your employees focused on the mission and the goals of the agency that you’re running?”

One of the most important ways to demonstrate leadership during a crisis is clearly communicating with employees. “Oftentimes, people just need a safe place to vent or share their worries and concerns to feel a little bit better in the midst of ambiguity,” Fox noted. “You may not have all of the information, but it’s key to put into place a regularly scheduled stream of communication, whether through email, all-hands meetings, town hall meetings, or some other venue format. Share what you know and hear what they have to say.”

Fox emphasized that listening is an often-overlooked strategy to keep people calm and focused in the midst of a crisis. It may not always be possible to “fix” the problems, but what leaders can do is provide a space to reassure employees that your agency is planning the best it can and will do whatever it takes to continue moving forward. “Find little opportunities to listen, inspire confidence and empower people to take action,” said Fox.

Even the most visible, most well-respected leaders in the world are ones who are focused on their continuous improvement. Becoming an effective leader is an ongoing learning process, and it’s unlikely that you’ll get everything right 100 percent of the time — especially when you’re confronted with chaos.

“You never really know what you’re capable of until you’re put to the test, and that is especially true for folks in leadership positions in any organization facing ambiguity or potential crisis,” Fox said. “Imagine yourself stepping up and figure out what that looks like. Then, work like crazy to make that vision a reality.”

Ultimately, it’s hard to plan and prepare for the unexpected. But the key is to communicate, support employees and focus on what you can control. “Figure out what you’ve got, what you can offer and then be open to opportunities to grow. Within the constraints of your role, just take as much action as you can to help people out,” Fox concluded.

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