Leadership in uncertain times

Guest contribution by | 02.04.2020

The current situation is an exciting time of observation for me as an expert on uncertainty. How do people react to a global crisis which, according to largely unanimous opinion from politics and science, is the biggest since the end of the Second World War and has a noticeable impact on our lifestyle? How does society deal with uncertainty, as well as with individual or collective fears? How is action and decision-making taken?

We know from uncertainty research that leadership, along with self-responsibility and inner stability, is an essential aspect for dealing adequately with and in uncertainty. That is why I would like to devote myself to this topic today, and at the same time take up the cudgels for our political leadership.

If we observe the current situation, we see many signs that our sense of security is breaking away in the uncertainty that is quite unusual for us. The life we are used to does not go on and our well-practiced planning and managing does not really help. We desperately search for reliable facts and “the right” measures – questions and discussions in social media are an example of this. From the perspective of uncertainty research, the current situation has some aggravating aspects:

  • Social contacts have to be minimised, at least physically – but in uncertainty, a good relationship gives strength and security; it is very difficult to establish this across the board during this time, especially for old or lonely people.
  • Help from outside is not to be expected. Our neighbours in other countries are often much worse off than we are. As a society, we are therefore not just on our own, at least temporarily, but are also obliged to help others for ethical reasons.
  • We live – despite all the prophecies of doom – in a society of material and physical security. It hits us all the harder when both are endangered by a virus that we cannot even see, let alone assess its effects with any degree of certainty.

In this situation, people inevitably look for new security, at first usually on the basis of familiar patterns that no longer really fit the new situation.

How is security created?

The feeling of security comes from within and can “only” be stabilised or de-stabilised from the outside. Especially in uncertain times (external) apparent security collapses. Personal insecurity and individual construction sites are “washed to the surface” – often accompanied by fears. This can be observed very well at the moment, because our outer framework, which has given us existential security up to now, is endangered. Examples of this are the fear of an economic slump, of a collapse in the supply of goods, or the concern for our personal freedom. This makes internal security, i.e. inner stability, which arises from within ourselves, all the more important.

The role of leadership

Leadership in times of uncertainty has the task of supporting the process of enabling people to develop their own inner security. At the same time, leadership should create and communicate a new external framework that has a stabilising rather than a destabilising effect. This can only succeed if there is a basis of trust between leadership and those being led, a challenge in times when physical encounters are difficult to implement, sometimes even visual communication breaks down.

Practical tips for leadership in uncertain times

How this can be implemented in practice is shown by a current look at the appearance and actions of the Federal Government, with Chancellor Merkel at the forefront. The Federal Government had a difficult starting situation. It was regarded as unwilling to act, many fellow citizens had completely lost their trust and did not trust any information from government circles. A survey published on March 27th, 2020 shows that 75% of German citizens consider the current measures to be appropriate, the reputation of the Chancellor is higher than it has been for a long time. From the point of view of uncertainty research, what are the factors behind this?

Acting in uncertainty

In uncertainty you can only steer by sight, comparable to navigating in fog without GPS. Since the situation is new, there is no acting according to best practices, but rather a trial and error. Measures are set up, observed, adjusted and if necessary rejected. The successive introduction of the contact ban is a good example of this. Decisions for measures are oriented on the situation, which is constantly changing, so situational acting is quite normal.

To decide and act in the face of the amount of new and at the same time missing information, assumptions are needed. These are verified or falsified over time. Using the example of the Corona crisis, the main current decision-relevant assumption is that the statements of the scientists from the German Robert Koch Insitute and the Charite give a good assessment of the situation and that it is indeed a pandemic.

Strategy for action / vision

Even if it is a matter of navigating in the fog, i.e. more of situational action and decision making, even in uncertainty a goal and a vision are needed, from which the procedure can be derived as a kind of strategy. This is necessary to motivate people to “sail along”. But goals are more volatile and also less concrete than we know from less uncertain times. Visions tend to be based on stable basic values.

Columbus wanted to discover India, but then reached America. The vision “to discover something new for the crown” remained, the goal achieved was a different one. His strategy of action (ultimately nothing more than the sum of assumptions) was oriented towards sailing westwards, the assumption that this would bring him to India remained unchanged. If his vision had been “discovering India” (and thus more concrete), he would have missed it and thus at the same time missed the chance to discover something completely new for the world at that time. This too is part of appropriate action and decision-making in uncertainty, not compulsively clinging to assumptions and goals.

Knowledge base and learning

The situation is unknown, so our “textbook knowledge” is only of limited use. Experiential knowledge comes alongside or even before school knowledge.


If communication is to create trust, it is recommended that it be honest and transparent. Word- and body language should radiate serenity and convey the conviction that “we can do this”. Critical questions and doubts must be answered. Criteria (i.e. assumptions) on which decisions are based must be expressed clearly and unambiguously. Disputes in management teams are absolutely necessary, especially in the matter at hand, and may also be communicated. However, decisions must then be supported and, above all, lived through for the duration of their validity. Corrections to actions and decisions must be communicated as part of the process and not as a failure of the others.


Leaders need the humility that they do not control the situation, that they do (and can) not know everything. They deduce that they therefore cannot act and decide “correctly”, but rather “rehearse” like all other people around them. Leaders need a servant attitude towards people and the cause. Power orientation, on the other hand, tends to lead to arrogance and, as a consequence, to inappropriate reaction and leadership.


Leaders are under massive pressure in times of uncertainty. They are challenged to the limit (and sometimes beyond), and all this in the spotlight. Many a much criticised appearance of politicians in recent days can be explained and also understood in this way. It is important that those affected are aware of this and take appropriate measures to take care of themselves, at the latest when the public becomes aware of this. Whether or not this is successful will be shown in the next performances.

A good example of self-care is Odysseus, who had himself tied to the ship’s mast so as not to be misled by the sirens. By the way, his comrades-in-arms closed their ears with wax during this time, a good example that in times of uncertainty, as a guided person, one may also once accept the advice of a trustworthy guide, even if one is deaf for a short time.

The don’ts of leadership

Of course, there are also a few don’ts that leadership should avoid or at least apologise for when it does happen in all the pressure and challenge:

  • Making it seem like leadership takes care of itself first.
  • Describing your own decisions as “right”.
  • Putting your own power before that of others.
  • To make guidelines so narrow that people have to or can give up their own responsibility.
  • To praise oneself – definitely not easy, because otherwise hardly anyone else would do it in such times.
  • Deriving long-term actions and decisions, that is reserved for oracles in uncertainty (for better or worse). Long-term action and decision-making comes after the situation of uncertainty.
  • Lessons-learned workshops are also more suitable for the time after the uncertainty/crisis, in the crisis itself it is more about situational learning of empirical knowledge, of course based on expert knowledge, which is also currently increasing.


A good example of leadership

A good example of action and decision-making by leaders in uncertainty is currently our Chancellor. She has often been accused of steering from the point of view of the future and of modifying decisions and actions according to the situation. This is now a necessary competence at this time. She radiates security, and we manage this without questioning the gravity of the situation. She clarifies her decision criteria and assumptions. She is calm and outwardly calm and yet at the same time radiates emotion by emphasizing care for others. She orders only as far as necessary and appeals to the individual’s self-responsibility. She shows the necessary humility that she too does not know the future, and she keeps herself to the rules of the game that she sets. Last but not least, it is not permanently present in public and thus reduces the risk of being “worn out”.

Less good examples can also be seen on television, I leave that to your own observation. ūüėČ


Leadership in uncertainty and crisis requires competencies for situational rather than strategic and planning handling in terms of action and decision-making. This is rather new for us in terms of leadership. In terms of motivation and communication, attitude and self-provision, on the other hand, these are competencies that are also required in conscience; they only become much more critical for success in uncertainty.

And leadership in uncertainty learns something new every day.

Leaders need trust and self-responsibility from those they lead – there is no contradiction here. Because of course this is not about blind trust, but about attentive, reflected trust, which is sometimes very vividly described in literature as awake trust.



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Astrid Kuhlmey
Astrid Kuhlmey

Computer scientist Astrid Kuhlmey has more than 30 years of experience in project and line management in pharmaceutical IT. She has been working as a systemic consultant for 7 years and advises companies and individuals in necessary change processes. Sustainability as well as social and economic change and development are close to her heart. Together with a colleague, she has developed an approach that promotes competencies to act and decide in situations of uncertainty and complexity.