David Wilkinson

Author and expert on Ambiguity and Emotional Resilience.

Is transformational leadership the best approach during times of uncertainty?

Is transformational leadership the best approach during times of uncertainty?
Transformational leadership is often taken as the doyen of leadership approaches in many organisations. Much time and effort is spent developing transformational leadership thinking, attitudes and behaviour. But, is it actually the best approach to leadership during situations of uncertainty?
Transformational leadership focuses on developing collaborative working relationships between the leadership, management and the employees
  • to identify changes required,
  • creating a vision,
  • coming up with joint solutions and
  • taking co-committed action.
This usually involves empowering employees to take action, give feedback, take responsibility, give purpose and connect people to the continued success of the organisation. 
It is considered considered that there are four facets of transformational leadership known as the four 'i's:
  1. Idealised influence - the leader as a role-model of collaborative, responsive, listening and creative practice
  2. Inspirational Motivation - by inspiring others to become engaged in the collective endeavour of creating change and developing performance. These two facets are usually seen as charismatic leadership.
  3. Individualised Consideration - leaders demonstrate a genuine wish to listen to, empathise and work with the employees collaboratively as individuals. 
  4. Intellectual Stimulation - this requires that the leaders constantly challenge everyone to spot problems, speak out, create innovative solutions, give feedback and remain engaged.
It all sounds like a pretty good recipe for promoting continual change, higher performance and innovation, and it is.
However a new study is challenging the role of transformational leadership during times of uncertainty. 
The research paper from the Sobey School of Business in Canada entitled 'Leadership in a time of financial crisis: what do we want from our leaders?' Looked at what employees expect and want from their leaders in times of uncertainty, particularly in terms of financial uncertainty. 
The study has just been published in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal and found that in situations of uncertainty people expect to be led. They want their leaders to rapidly diagnose the situation, come up with solutions but most importantly take rapid and decisive action and communicate clearly and continuously. As the researchers point out the "none of the components of transformational leadership encapsulate this notion."
As I point out in my book "The Ambiguity Advantage" leadership during situations of uncertainty and ambiguity is entirely different to the leadership needed whilst stabilising or in a stable environment. Very few leadership development programmes develop the ability in leaders to a) recognise uncertainty (I know it sounds daft but many leaders only catch up with uncertainty once everything has crashed), b) know what mode to switch into, and , c) the ability to rapidly switch to the right mode.
Usually leaders get caught up in the uncertainty and flick back to their base or stress mode of operating. With the exception of about 2% of the population most leaders are ill prepared to lead productively in situations of uncertainty. Training can make a huge difference here, which is why the emergency service, military etc. spend so much effort trying their people for such situations. Waiting for a crisis to find out if your leaders have the 
  • Skills,
  • Mindset, and 
  • Emotional resilience
is usually a very costly and risky strategy. 
Programmes like 'Leading through uncertainty' deal with these very issues. At the heart of this programme are things like
  • the ability to recognise uncertainty before it becomes a problem,  
  • how to make good judgements during situations of uncertainty
  • problem solving in times of uncertainty
  • how lead when things get uncertain in a way which inspires confidence and productive action. 
Haddon, A., Loughlin, C., & McNally, C. (2015). Leadership in a time of financial crisis: what do we want from our leaders?. Leadership & Organization Development Journal36(5).
Riggio, R. E."Are You a Transformational Leader?".Psychology Today.
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