We live in a new world where change has become the permanent variable. Certainties are gone! We lead teams under uncertain circumstances, and we must be ready to operate in “a world as it emerges” as Otto Scharmer of the ULab at MIT says. This tells us clearly that the main tool we have is ourselves.
This is highly challenging for leaders and managers (middle management generally) who are under stress on three levels: firstly, the stress of their team members facing an uncertain world together with their fears and resistances; secondly, the stress coming from their managers or shareholders who demand certainty; and lastly, the stress they themselves emanate in the face of uncertainty.
Although the main tool is our self, we have some limitations: our main organ, the brain, is the same as it was 160,000 years ago and it isn’t made for change, but to ensure our survival. Thus, it always opts to spend less energy, while for the sake of safety it drives us to do the same old thing as always. Yet another challenge!
Leading teams to change reality and within a liquid reality is a complex task, which thus requires many self-care resources. Here are some recommendations and suggestions for tapping into more self-resources:
- Confront fears through cooperation
Fears are basic emotions that link us to our evolutionary past: they allow us to detect danger and put us on alert. So, to be afraid is natural in a situation of uncertainty.
We learnt from neuroscience that the main resource for facing fear is cooperation. In a complex scenario, a good strategy is to bring together collaborators to work, to share, to express these same fears. Being with others gives us security.
- Connect through positive emotions
Thoughts trigger emotions. For example, if I tell someone who is afraid of spiders that I have a spider in a box, he will probably be afraid regardless of whether the spider actually exists. Fear is spawned by the thought of the spider. Similarly, a driver on a motorway sees another car overtaking him and that makes him angry, even though the second driver had no intention of bothering him. Again, this is the effect of thought. That’s what happens in uncertain and complex settings; thought leads us to think about fearful scenarios, triggering negative emotions and spurring anxiety. Anxiety is the fear that comes from thinking about something feared.
Uncertain contexts generate anxiety. All of us people fear the worst. There are two top strategies for combating anxiety, which also use thought: the first consists of being able to learn to deliberately attach ourselves to thoughts that breed positive emotions; the second, involves thinking about the different possible scenarios to befriend them. It has also been proven that in such situations meditation is a great help.
- Stabilize ourselves in moments of stress
In troops of monkeys, the leader is in the centre, so that the rest of the group members see that he is calm, and they then can continue with their tasks tranquilly. In Mike McGuire's research on monkeys and leadership, the conclusion was that leader monkeys had a higher level of serotonin than the rest. Serotonin is called the happiness hormone and it allows us to be calm in times of stress. A good leader must be able to regulate his serotonin: he must keep calm in uncertain times because that’s important for the rest of the group.
How can we produce good levels of serotonin? The best ways are physical exercise, good sleep, meditation, and laughter. Thus, our recommendation is that, as leaders each one of us should think of looking after ourselves and our own stability. That way you will also take care of the rest of the group’s members.
- Leadership as conversation
Our acts of leadership are always conversational. However, in times of uncertainty, in complex and threatening contexts, it is necessary to change conversations. What kind of conversation content helps us to shift the focus onto the team?
Firstly, we must work on analysing scenarios, contemplating everything from the most pessimistic scenario through to the most optimistic one, i.e. discuss what is feared, consider it as a possibility and from there to be able to think up different plans of action. Wedding ourselves to action allows us to surf uncertainty. Secondly, as we said before, it is important to encourage the group to express their fears and relieve tension this way. Finally, create a magical effect that leads to creating or redefining projects as well as planning for their future.
The volatile, ambiguous and startling circumstances, we face today require leaders who possess great emotional stability and, as Otto Scharmer already said, who can make full use of three key tools—an open mind, an open heart and a desire—to cope with uncertainty.
 Research on monkeys and serotonin, UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute