The Uncertainty of Leadership

April 10, 2023

On day one of AIGA’s Executive Leadership Summit, design leaders gathered to discuss how their mindset can be redesigned to better navigate uncertain times. The session, led by introvert leadership coach Janice Chaka, began with a simple exercise around the question of leadership philosophy and what values create a good leader. 

Words were tossed out: empathy, courage, transparency, support, teambuilding, inspiration, and growth. Diving deeper into the discussion though, one thing became clear: how do you stay true to a leadership vision when goals are constantly in flux?

Uncertainty wasn’t always a buzzword, but thanks to a global pandemic, economic concerns, war, and the overarching feeling of precariousness, uncertainty has seeped into every part of our lives. We bring it to work in finance and hiring considerations, it’s part of our organizational discussions, and it even rears its head in project planning. 

Distraction can become a valuable tool at the inflection point of uncertainty. Understanding facts and focusing on raw data can help ease the anxiety that emanates from uncertainty. Keeping emotion out of the decision making process can help move us forward with solutions. As an attendee noted, “Sitting in the moment allows you to be present.” The idea of being present helps one to step back, look objectively at the situation, and work towards a resolution.

Attendees shared their own tactics for moving past uncertainty: 

  • Making room in your schedule for focused time to reflect on strategy can help productivity. This attention to one concept prevents you from bouncing from task to task. 
  • Setting the tone for the day can be your best asset, and this only happens when you give yourself the time and permission to do so. 
  • Possibly the best and most important reminder shared, “We are all ridiculously in charge of our calendars.” Find and make time for yourself when you need it, and even when you don’t need it. Your personal time should always be a part of your calendar. 

Clarifying uncertainty through boundaries is an integral part of being a leader. It can be uncomfortable letting go of control to let others figure things out, but as a leader you are positioned to empower others, and it is good leadership to help others grow professionally. Making yourself dispensable means the team can function without you and this is another place where discomfort sneaks in. The question was asked, “If you build the team and they’re able to run without you, have you just put yourself out of a job?” One attendee responded, “It’s the exact opposite, you’ve worked yourself into a new position.” 

This is what being a leader is at times—it’s about finding space to let others grow, which means you have to do the same. The leadership you provide in your career should include finding your strengths and as well as the time for them to flourish.

Everyone needs downtime to avoid burnout, but this doesn’t mean being stagnant when it comes to creativity. As one attendee noted, “Being intellectually creative is important.” Find the time to develop professionally, do the work, and fill your own glass too. 

Understanding the various roles that a leader holds is another important concept. Having the awareness of your personality and how it impacts your leadership style provides personal goals. Meanwhile, you need to set goals and advocate for your team. Management and leadership can be engaging and inspiring. 

Resilience and the ways in which we overcome uncertainty in our world wrapped up this session. It’s important to remember that the decisions we make are all uncertain, and whatever happens will happen. Embrace the journey and trust that your experience will lead you in the best direction.  

One attendee commented, “Action is the antidote to fear.” Uncertainty can cause us to freeze and may even bring on decision paralysis. Being flexible in the moment, willing to listen to new options, and move in a new direction can help—and even impart a sense of control in an uncomfortable situation.   

Overcoming the fear of uncertainty is a challenge for any leader. Designers, luckily, are adaptable by nature and are inherent problem solvers. Sometimes answers are found more easily when we take a moment to breathe, assess, and even let go, and this allows others to be present in this leadership moment too.