Global Business School for Health


How to lead in uncertain times

18 September 2021

Being a leader can be a challenge at the best of times and leading effectively only becomes more difficult during times of uncertainty. Director of the UCL GBSH, Prof Nora Colton, gives you her top 5 things to do during uncertain times.

Person buttoning up their suit

“We are living in unprecedented times.” This was a phrase frequently used at the start of the pandemic, referencing how the whole world was collectively facing something which nobody had ever faced before. Healthcare systems being overwhelmed with patients, businesses shut for months on end, students and teachers moving to online learning with no substantial experience of doing so before, and various organisations and companies adopting working from home, with those in manager and leadership positions leading from home for potentially the first time ever.

In uncertain times, such as a global pandemic, those in leadership positions must be resilient. You need to be there for your people and remind them that what they do is essential for the organisation, as well as help them remain calm and visualise a less challenging tomorrow.

As a leader, here are five things you should be doing when faced with uncertain times:

1. Collect information and take action 

Most of us are familiar with the concept of “fight or flight.” When faced with a difficult or stressful situation, some will stand their ground while others will remove themselves from the situation. When it comes to leaders, some will go into overdrive, making ill-informed decisions while others ignore the uncertainty and keep moving forward as if nothing has happened. These leaders eventually get caught out.

My approach is to collect enough information to make informed decisions but also recognise that you benefit from your previous experiences. The reason for this is that situations are constantly changing. If you keep waiting for the right moment to take-action, it will never come. Your experience as a leader is invaluable for knowing when you should address the problem in a proactive and informed way.

When I was appointed Director of the UCL Global Business School for Health, it was an exciting time, but also very uncertain given that we were in a pandemic and lockdown. There were many tasks to complete as a “start-up” department in a large organisation, but it was not business as usual. The situation required me to gather real-time market intelligence and use my experience in higher education to prepare a vision of what the school could potentially look like and begin to plan and action that vision. I took advantage of the increase in working virtually to interview over a hundred key health and healthcare influencers who I would have never had access to in any other circumstances. Collecting this information and acting on it has meant that we have created the first business school for health ready to meet the needs of prospective students, employers, and global society. If I had waited for the right time or for the uncertainty to go away – I would be still waiting.

2. Plan

You should never underestimate the benefits of good planning, both in the short- and the long-term. When times are uncertain, it is the long-term and strategic planning that will guide you through. Throughout my career, I have found that developing a flexible draft strategy and plan as early as possible is invaluable for when things become less clear. It gives you something to hold on to and a place where you can articulate your risks and mitigation plans. If you are in for a long road ahead, you need to ensure you have the right equipment, goals, and plans in place, including contingencies.

3. Involve stakeholders 

In times of uncertainty and change, it is vital that leaders are visible, listening and responding to the thoughts and feelings of their team and stakeholders. As a “start-up” department within a big organisation such as UCL, as well as the business school sector, I must constantly be networking and interacting with colleagues both within the organisation and outside to ensure that I keep my sponsors on board as well as understand the shifting health and healthcare landscape. It is easy to get caught up in work and forget the importance of the people side of what you are doing as a leader. I find stakeholder mapping helpful in keeping me in the right headspace and working those relationships to get early feedback on what my team and I are doing.

4. Recognise and celebrate successes

As a leader, you can easily become consumed with work, but you can’t forget to recognise your team members for their hard work and celebrate victories and successes, no matter how small. I am a huge fan of workshops or gatherings focused on what we are getting right rather than what is going wrong. I have mixed feelings when it comes to Red-Amber-Green (RAG) rating tables: oftentimes leaders can become fixated on the Red without acknowledging or giving credit for the Green. Ensuring your team is recognised and celebrated is also a meaningful way to stay in a growth mindset when times are difficult.

5. Stay rested so you can respond effectively

You might be in a leadership position, but you’re still human. There has been enough research done by now for us to be aware of the dangers of not resting our minds and bodies, including burnout and poor decision-making. However, in uncertain times, leaders often forget to rest and start burning the candle at both ends. Being a well-rested leader is not just about protecting yourself, but also your organisation, ensuring you are in the best headspace when it comes to making decisions. Throughout my career, I have learned how to spot when I am overworked. When I start to see my responses and productivity drop, I ensure to give myself a “time-out” or some time away. 

These past 18 months have proved to be an incredibly uncertain and difficult time for everyone, but as a leader, you need to listen to your team and their experiences, as well as enable solutions and innovations that address the uncertainty and help others recognise that they can move past this moment as a team and emerge stronger.

Nora Colton headshot
By Professor Nora Ann Colton, Director of the UCL Global Business School for Health (UCL GBSH)