The multiple and varied crises of 2020 have caught most, if not all, of us off guard. Leaders have been challenged to react and pivot quickly in response.

As a leader, how are you ensuring your team remains nimble and adaptive? How are you embracing the uncertainty? And, looking forward, how can you learn from what you and your organization have endured in 2020? What steps can you take to better prepare for the future?

In an effort to share ideas and learn from one another, Experience to Lead brought together senior leaders from various industries and government agencies to discuss their strategies for successfully navigating turbulent times.

Below are 3 practical leadership lessons that you can immediately apply to your team: Foster Psychological Safety, and Embrace Uncertainty, and Practice Adaptive Leadership.

1. Foster Psychological Safety

People should feel free to take risks and suggest new ideas while knowing that leaders will still support them if they fail. It’s always important to foster this sense of psychological safety on your team, and this is especially true during times of crisis.

When the landscape is rapidly changing and strategies must continually evolve, it’s more vital than ever that people feel safe suggesting new approaches to problems.

Psychological safety is also tied to fostering a sense of mental well-being among employees. It’s natural to feel increased stress and anxiety during times of upheaval. Leaders should be especially attuned to their employees’ mental health during these periods.

People may verbalize their anxieties, but often they will not, so leaders need to be tuned into those non-verbal cues.

“Do you have the person who used to be very outgoing who has now become quiet? How about the person who was very low key, mild-mannered, and now all of a sudden, it seems that just about anything sets them off?” says Ed Garrison, Director of Leadership Development at International Paper. “You’re really trying to be more tuned into…how are people responding? How are people feeling?”

When leaders stay tuned in to people’s mental health needs during a crisis, it will pay dividends in long-term engagement.

“How we feel treated right now is going to impact our employee engagement not just right now but for years to come,” says Reena Mueller, Senior Employee & Leadership Development Specialist at Siemens Healthineers. “It’s going to impact how connected we feel, and how engaged we stay.”

People will remember how their sense of psychological safety was fostered, or not fostered, during a crisis.

Ask yourself: Are you tuned into your employees’ spoken and unspoken mental health needs during stressful times? Are you fostering a culture of psychological safety?

2. Embrace Uncertainty 

Times of crisis are inherently uncertain. There’s uncertainty about future outcomes, as well as about how long the crisis will last. In some cases, people may also feel uncertain about job security or about their changing role on the team, if a company is undergoing a massive transition.

As a leader, you may feel pressure to have all the answers. This is especially true during a crisis when people are looking to you for guidance. But ironically, during these times, admitting you don’t always know the answer can actually build trust.

“Be vulnerable, be open, be accessible to your people, say you don’t know when you don’t know,” Garrison says. “Don’t make it up. Take a note, get it to the right teams. Answer that question.”

He cites a memorable leadership insight from Richard Feynman, a physicist who played a key role in the investigation of NASA’s Challenger disaster: “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered, than answers that can’t be questioned.”

Embracing uncertainty also means accepting that you cannot control every outcome, during a crisis or otherwise.

Tara Ruttley, Associate Chief Scientist for Microgravity Research at NASA, views this through the lens of the classic five stages of grief (denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance). She argues that leaders can actually feel empowered when they accept the fact that they can’t predict what will happen

“It’s important when you’re thinking about planning for the future … acceptance is where the power is, where you feel like you have control,” she says.

Ask yourself: Do you acknowledge that you won’t always have all the answers during a crisis? Can you plan for the future while accepting that you can’t control every outcome?

3. Practice Adaptive Leadership

Teams that can pivot and adapt their strategies tend to fare best during a crisis. It’s all about asking yourself the right questions to move forward in a changed environment, says Greg Wachtler, Senior Director, Talent Office, UnitedHealthcare and Optum.

Ask yourself, “If we can’t deliver this program the way we were expecting to or planning to, what are we going to do?” he says. “And how does that align with our longer-term purpose?”

To remain nimble, you may need to streamline layers of decision-making to push through solutions that would normally have taken much longer to implement. In some cases, it may also be helpful to consider that an “80% solution” is better than no solution at all.

More broadly, agility is rooted in an adaptive mindset—the acknowledgment that things are changing quickly, and won’t stay the same after a crisis.

“Sometimes people say during these times of great disruption, ‘I wish things could go back to the way they were,’” Garrison says, recalling an insight from one of his senior leaders. However, “providing stability is not the same thing as staying the same.”

The challenge for leaders is to help teams stay grounded while also accepting that change is inevitable.

“What are your processes that will get you through this?” Garrison says. “What are your go-to processes that you can lean on and say, ‘Hey, here’s how we are going to get through this change—but we have to change. There really is no option.’”

Ask yourself: Do you approach a crisis with an adaptive mindset? Can you nimbly adjust your strategies during times of disruption?

There is no playbook for navigating today’s myriad challenges, and many leaders have understandable concerns about the future. However, while you may not always be able to predict what is coming next, you can control what you are doing right now to look out for your team, adapt your strategies, and shift your mindset to weather uncertain times.


At Experience to Lead, we are focused on helping leaders be agile in times of change. In our new, virtual live Adaptive Leader Experience, learn how resilience and flexibility are vital to success in challenging times. This highly customizable new program will empower and align your team to lead in today’s rapidly changing environment. Learn More!