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John Peters: Leading in uncertainty

John Peters

Leading through change and uncertainty

A former RAF pilot, a Gulf War prisoner of war and now accomplished author and speaker, John Peters knows a thing or two about leading when things are difficult. In advance of his appearance at ILM’s Northern Conference he shares his insights here

During my time in captivity, all the tools that business psychologists use to enrich us were pressure-applied to do just the opposite and used to enhance the anxiety of capture, increase my uncertainty and heighten my sense of fear, failure and vulnerability to reduce my will. Some additional pressures were also applied, which I would hope you are not exposed to at work: sensory deprivation, starvation, violence and sleep deprivation! I learned some fundamental lessons in dealing with uncertainty that I have applied ever since, from the mass media attention through to running a business.

Set your mind

To overcome these pressures and even to lead in such an alien environment requires setting your mind.  For me, I set myself 4 simple things, the ABCD.  A: ACCEPT the brutal realities. “Should have, could have, why didn’t I?” Dwelling on past failures and thinking like this is a waste of time.  

B: Look BEYOND the walls. If I had looked at the walls and the beatings, I would have given in: I looked way beyond the walls. Do not be myopic and focus on the immediacy and negativity of the present anguish: re-focus to future opportunities. 

This leads to C: CHOOSE your own future.  Whatever the circumstances imply, this is the essence of our human spirit, that which distinguishes our humanity. However limited that choice may be, however limited that future may be, whatever imposition is applied, we can choose our own future.  

 And, finally, D: DEAL with the Result. This defines the ‘survivor personality’. An event may be negative, it may be positive. We may have got it right or wrong…deal with the result.  It is not good OR bad, positive or negative, black or white, it is AND.  It is possibility thinking: is this result possible? This could result is this AND that: whichever, simply deal with the result. When everything is uncertain, when one does not know the result of one’s decisions, focus on dealing with the result that emerges. It is that simple. AND what did you learn? 

So what, you might say? Being a POW is so far removed from my reality, it is meaningless. May be so, but consider this. “One thing is clear, if there is to be no slowing down, no spontaneous return to order and no new era of stability the implications for leaders are permanently and profoundly important”.   The world is changing. We all have our success formula that has got us to where we are. But what happens when this experience is not relevant?  

Being a leader or manager when things are good is difficult enough. But what do you do when things are tough or ambiguous? What do you do when you don’t know what to do next? How do you lead when you are uncertain? 

Reflect upon these questions

  • What is your greatest uncertainty?  What keeps you awake at night? What are your people’s greatest uncertainties?
  • How comfortable are you to decide and act without having the whole picture?
  • How do you prepare for the unknown?
  • Do you take time to critically reflect on your experiences?
  • What are the behaviours you engage in when you are feeling uncertain or exposed?  What is your armour? What does or doesn’t happen because of it? 
  • What rules work for you when you have to lead through uncertainty?
  • Do you actively develop your people to challenge and re-think all your practices, processes, procedures and methods of doing business?
  • What are your key uncertainties?  What are the central issues for business strategy that arise from these uncertainties? And what concepts and tools can help you manage the transition to a new era?

To lead in uncertainty, you need a mental framework that is 'forgiving' of a necessary degree of confusion, ambiguity, uncertainty or contradiction, providing, of course, that a sufficient core of structure can be extracted from it to allow your activities to proceed. Therefore: expect the unexpected.  Build flexibility into your plans. When something goes wrong, do not search for wrong-doers to punish.  When something goes right, do not think it is because of your genius. 

It requires setting up an environment and, subsequently, the leadership to maximise learning. It is planning to learn; briefing to learn and de-briefing what we have learnt – relentlessly. It is engendering an environment of performance; it is an attitude of mind.  High performers are not confident because they tell each how good they are; they are confident because they expose themselves to critical peer review every day of their careers. In uncertainty, the job of a leader is to set the environment. Everyone leading by example: the best example their experience can provide and sharing their knowledge to improve one another within a competitive but collaborative learning process. And the brutal reality is that the results and figures do not lie. No offence is taken. The leadership required is to maintain a competitive, challenging atmosphere within a vigorous shared learning environment. All whilst creating the human connection, esprit de corps and morale that is the essential competitive advantage in uncertainty.  Many organisations insist that they are learning organisations; from my experience as a business consultant, few are. The performance defines the environment which defines the leadership: the principles of a performance-led learning culture. Top down; bottom up. It is a culture that I have rarely come across in business.

So how can you prepare to lead more effectively in uncertainty? It is not about dealing with what we know, (old world thinking) but managing what we do not know. Here are 3 areas to consider, which I hope are useful: Prepare yourself; Rethink your Business; Set Up to Learn from Experience.

Prepare yourself

  • Prepare for uncertainty, challenge, and opportunity. You don’t have all the answers, so establish predetermined processes and procedures for finding answers.  Know your response to tough situations before they occur. What is your response to challenging questions, for example?
  • Escape: Escape from fixed way of seeing by discovering new angles and perspectives on experiences. Explore different maps of the world: explore fully how others view the world and ‘get inside’ their ideas.
  • Take time to think.  Many of us are very action orientated. Many better decisions may have been found and mistakes avoided if time is taken to sanity check ideas and consider what other solutions we can think of:  Do I need to know this?  Will I profit from knowing this?  Is it worth the effort?
  • Get uncomfy. That means never settle into an equilibrium (AKA rut) but don’t fall apart either (AKA the “chaos trap”)
  • Pace Yourself. The goal should be creating an internal rhythm, not moving fast for the sake of speed
  • Hang Loose. Encourage an innovative, adaptive culture, but avoid having too little structure.  Still, too much structure – the “bureaucratic trap” – means death for a fast-moving company

Rethink your business

Your success formula can become your comfort zone, which can make you vulnerable. Continually challenge your business: 

  • Tough Talk: Force a conversation on how the company will have to operate differently to be successful in two years from now. Otherwise everyone dwells on today’s successful products.
  • Yellow Flags: Pay close attention to what your sharpest, most mobile customers are doing.  They’re your early-warning of business-model problems.
  • Remodel early: Start changing your business when you are most successful. When you’re in trouble, it’s too late
  • Abandon Yesterday: Maintaining what no longer works draws your most valuable resources away from your No1 job, creating tomorrow
  • A New Improved Storyline: Explain the company’s changes within a larger context. Employees, customers and suppliers are more comfortable with change when it’s presented as part of a storyline

Set up to learn from patience.

Be relentless on conducting After Action Reviews, on your decisions, on your projects and laterally across your organisation: it is a five-step process to identify lessons learned.

  1. What was the intent? Begin by going back and defining the original purpose and goal of action.
  2. What happened? Describe as specifically as possible what actually occurred.
  3. What have we learned? Identify the key information, knowledge and insights that were gained as a result.
  4. What do we know now? Determine what will be done as a result of what has been learned, dividing the actions into three categories: short-term, mid-term and long-term.
  5. Take action. The key to mastering uncertainty and change is to manage your learning.  Your expectations have a powerful effect on the outcomes of your efforts and your future circumstances.  It is a mind-set.  So what are you going to do about it?   

Twitter Q&A with John Peters hosted from the @ILM_Edge account 

ILM: This morning we're chatting to John Peters about leading in uncertainty during our #ILMQA. John can you start by introducing yourself?

JP: Morning! Former fighter pilot, obviously bad one as shot down! Now consultant in leadership, strategy, change and performance

ILM: You spent time in captivity as a POW during Gulf War. What life lessons did you learn which could be applied to leadership?

JP: That bad things can turn out to be opportunities

ILM: Many great leaders have spent time in captivity - do you think the solitude forces them to reflect & become more strategic?

JP: Absolutely, the clarity and gift of time is extremely powerful during uncertainty. The lessons resonate way beyond the immediate

ILM: When leading with uncertainty, what are the key attributes needed in a leader?

JP: It allows one to clarify one's philosophy and approach, which makes one more resilient and assured: most leaders could benefit

ILM: How can uncertainty create a better leader?

JP: Leadership IS dealing with uncertainty. Better able to accept vulnerability but being more decisive and able to engage others


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