As a visionary entrepreneur, I’m the kind of person who plays the long game. I prefer to visualize the future first — and then work backwards for how to get there. Usually, this comes easy to me, but leading a business through change isn’t always crystal clear.
Every company goes through good times and bad. Even if you plan for the worst, you can never be 100% sure what’s around the bend. It’s in these uncertain times when strong leadership is more important than ever.
So how do you lead your team when you can’t even see the future yourself? It’s not easy, but with focus, faith and effort, you can get your 20/20 vision back.
Remove Fear By Facing It
In times of uncertainty, leaders have two choices: retreat in fear or race to the conflict. Ten years ago, I almost walked away after I let our then-COO go — against the belief of every single person in the company. People began speculating and filling in the blanks on their own, creating a toxic culture of paranoia and confusion. They even questioned whether I was the leader they needed (or wanted) going forward.
It’s a leader’s job to take the fear out of uncertain situations by tackling them head-on. So I went on the road to address our franchise partners face-to-face. We had a series of townhall meetings, where I put big sheets of paper up on the wall and told them to write down any questions and concerns they had. I left the room so they would feel safe to be completely (and brutally) honest. The goal was to get everything on the table and be fully transparent — nothing was off limits.
It was like going up against a firing squad, but my team deserved answers and clarity about the future. They acknowledged I couldn’t lead the company on my own (I’m a visionary, not an executor), and asked who would step in to fill the gaps. We stared uncertainty square in the eyes, and together we took back control of the next phase of our company.
Hunker Down on Short-Term Goals
Our business wasn’t spared the effects of the 2008 financial meltdown. We lost $40 million in revenue and our downturn showed no signs of letting up.
Prior to the crash, we had always planned four to five years ahead. We called this our Painted Picture: a hyper-detailed snapshot of where we were going and what we would achieve. But in 2008, our future was so unclear that we couldn’t think that far ahead. We scaled back and shortened our horizons: what can we accomplish by the end of this year?
We wrote the first (and only) one-year Painted Picture, accepting that short-term stability would ultimately lead to long-term success. It worked: we took it slow, rebuilt, and we came back stronger than we ever could’ve imagined.
Empower Your Team to Be Part of the Change
People feel most vulnerable when their fate is out of their control. They’re also happier and more secure when they feel like their ideas matter. That’s why strong leaders empower their teams to be a part of finding solutions — especially in challenging times.
We regularly solicit ideas from our team members for how to improve, in good times and bad. This improves engagement and strengthens our community spirit. The feedback we receive from our employees helps guide our decision-making for the future of the company.
Leaders sometimes feel pressured to be the smartest person in the room, but the truth is, they never should be. There’s power in numbers and your people probably have innovative ideas you’ve never thought of. Give them the opportunity to have a say in their own futures.
Don’t Make Empty Promises
Leading your business through uncertainty usually requires you to reset your goals and expectations — what success used to look like may not be within reach anymore. You may need to redefine what it means to you now, and be realistic about what’s achievable.
Don’t make empty promises that you might not be able to keep. This sets everyone up for failure and breaks your team’s trust in you. If I’d promised our team pre-recession numbers when we were in the thick of it, I would have compromised my credibility (and competence) as leader.
Finding stability again takes time; it’s important to be realistic, optimistic, and to work hard together. It’s an intensely humbling experience to admit you’re not as strong as you once were. But pretending everything is fine won’t earn trust or confidence in your leadership.
Go Back to Your Values
Your values are guideline for how to make decisions. If you’re unsure about the future, go back to basics and remind yourself what you stand for. For example, our values are Passion, Integrity, Professionalism and Empathy. These attributes are a constant we can always be sure of, even when the future looks murky.
At the end of the day, your strength as a leader comes from your ability to keep pushing forward and to inspire others to have faith, as well. If you stay true to your values and lead from a place of humility, your team will respect and trust your ability to lead them back into the light.