I predict we’ll be hearing the phrase “cautiously optimistic” a lot now. The New York Times tells us “The Economy is (Almost) Back. It Will Look Different Than It Used To.”

The parenthetical “almost” sticks out as a hedge on whatever might happen in the near future, as analysts are qualifying their forecasts after a year of confusing information and chaos. Things look promising, let’s just hope they’ll stay that way!

Times of cautious optimism can be the sweet spot if you’re one of those leaders who knows how to manage uncertainty. Let’s call them uncertainty leaders.

Uncertainty leaders see opportunity where others do not and they’re optimistic that things will get better. They can take advantage of this optimism to develop new products, methods or concepts.

The Times report, written by senior economics correspondent Neil Irwin, gives us a case study in uncertainty leadership scenarios.

The economy is recovering rapidly and is on track to reach the levels of overall G.D.P. that would have been expected before anyone had heard of Covid-19. But that masks some extreme shifts in composition of what the United States is producing. That matters both for the businesses on the losing end of those shifts and for their workers, who may need to find their way into the growing sectors.
– Neil Irwin, New York Times

The report lays out data that is mixed and nuanced (this is very US-centric and may not jibe with all global conditions). It indicates many sectors are doing well, mostly due to pent-up demand and products that aren’t contingent on face-to-face gatherings. Sectors that involve travel and face-to-face are lagging–including some aspects of executive education. Remote learning staved off a collapse, but the pandemic continues to moderate international travel and in-person gatherings.

The central reality of the economy in 2021 is that it’s profoundly unequal across sectors, unbalanced in ways that have enormous long-term implications for businesses and workers.
– Neil Irwin, New York Times

There’s plenty of ambiguity in the forecast:

That’s what makes the economy of 2021 so promising but also worrying. The boom is here. We just don’t know yet how bumpy the ride will be in trying to return to something that feels like full-fledged prosperity.
– Neil Irwin, New York Times

How can you become a better uncertainty leader in this bumpy ride?

My colleague Phil Hodgson and I have identified eight behaviors that we call enablers of uncertainty leadership that give some guidance here:

1. Become motivated by mysteries – an uncertainty leader likes the puzzle. It’s part of their motivational makeup. Even when uncertainty buffets their business, they’re likely to be energized to try new approaches. They greet the mystery as an opportunity to learn, grow and change.

2. Be risk tolerant – there’s lots of risk looming now. Will there be more lock-downs? Will some nations shut down travel while others stay open? Uncertainty leaders know how to weigh the risk intelligently and they’re not afraid to make a mistake as long as it is in the service of learning to do new things or do things better.

3. Scan ahead – look for the faintest signals of what the future could be. Read articles like Irwin’s piece in the Times, then ponder the scenarios that could open up. Imagine what features you could add to your business that would assuage customers’ cautious nature – shorter contracts, pandemic pricing, a different way of doing business. Learn what others are doing that might work in your own business.

4. Tackle tough issues – “The game’s afoot,” as Sherlock Holmes said, quoting Shakespeare, when a difficult case opened up. Holmes was invigorated by the challenge and it’s part of the motivation of =uncertainty leaders. These “tenacious challengers” have the spirit of the entrepreneur to try and try again.

5. Create excitement – even when the going gets tough. Most people are not motivated by uncertain situations. In fact, they find them frightening. And we’re dealing with a deadly virus that has upended lifestyles like nothing else in recent memory. So, the uncertainty-adept leader will need to be creative and coach their team to see opportunities of being first to market. Don’t forget to listen empathetically and be prepared to help people see the exciting possibilities.

6. Be flexible – you should go ahead and plan on changing plans often and be willing to admit when you get it wrong. It’s all a process of learning.

7. Be a simplifier – the ability to translate complex situations into messages everyone can act on and understand is so valuable here. Leaders need to clarify goals and interpret complex data and information. In the Times article, this is exactly what the writer is doing. At the end of the article we have an understandable forecast that helps to inform a post-pandemic strategy.

8. Be focused – with all the future scanning and “imagineering,” it’s easy to overlook what needs to be done right now. But an uncertainty leader can carve out time to get down to tactical necessities of the moment. She is always asking what are your critical few things that need to get done.

Remember there’s nothing reckless about uncertainty leadership. On the contrary, it’s a mode of learning leadership that balances analysis and risk management with instinct and action. It’s about survival with the potential to become a leader of the next big wave of business.

By Randall P. White