5 Top Tips to be an Effective Leader in Uncertain Times

Since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown a year ago, nonprofits have experience constant change, challenges, uncertainty and onslaughts. Social Impact leaders were all of a sudden at war with the pandemic and the severe social-development consequences, whilst having to lead their teams with both empathy and focus.

Valcare ‘s Chief Operations Officer, Brendan Smith, was previously an officer in the British Army for 10 years, specialising in humanitarian aid and disaster response. He worked with both the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, the military component of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the United Nations (UN) and served in two tours to Afghanistan.

These are the five lessons he learnt to help leaders be effective leaders in uncertain times:

1. Implement Effects-based Operations

Effects-based operations are often used in stressful army situations where you start by asking yourself the question:

What is the effect I want to achieve?

and then you work back from there.

This leads to secondary questions like: “What tasks need to be done to achieve this effect?” and “What resources do I need to support these tasks?”.

Similarly, in the nonprofit environment we have a tool to assist us called the theory of change. This strategic framework helps us to identify what effect, change or outcome we want to see, and what needs to be done to achieve this change. It also helps outline the inputs and resources do we need to allocate to our operations to get us there.

Click here to view Valcare’s theory of change.

2. The Law of First Contact

No plan survives first contact with the enemy”.

These sentiments were famously shared by Carl Von Clausevitz, a general and war philosopher in the 18th century.

No matter how well you plan, things will not always go according to your plan.

If you expect this, then it is easier to handle the situation when things do change. Try and anticipate what might change or impact your plan, and have alternative plans in place and be prepared to be flexible.

3. Every Plan Needs a Pause

In the battle of Goose Green during the Falklands War in 1981, the 2nd Battalion parachute battalion were heavily outnumbered and pinned down. Colonel Herbert Jones famously took a pause during the battle to reassess the situation and change his plan. While he did this, he ordered his unit to have some tea. This pause is one of the key reasons that despite overwhelming odds and a seemly impossible situation they won an unlikely victory and changed the course of the war.

The military planning process at NATO is called a combat estimate. It helps officers to systematically create a coherent plan in times of chaos, and built into the combat estimate is a section called “pause”. It is mandated that before a plan can be completed or executed there needs to be a time to pause and reflect.

As leaders, we need to take time out to pause and think, even in the most difficult situations. It might seem counter-intuitive, especially when there is time pressure to make decisions and take actions. However, pausing is actually highly productive and may actually save you time and effort.

Sometime we need to pause and take stock – tea and coffee may also help.

4. Instinctive Rules of Engagement

Rules of Engagement (ROE) are a set of principles that outline when and how soldiers may fire upon the enemy. These rules can be extremely complicated with international legal and political consequences for breaches.

It is however usually in the heat of the moment when a solider needs make a decision on whether they need to fire or not. They might not have time to think through a flow chart or decision tree. And so, there is a large emphasis placed on the rules of engagement during times of peace so they become instinctive.

In times of stress, uncertainty and organisational survival we can be faced with tough and morally ambiguous choices. But, if an organisation has rules of engagement, like policies and procedures that become part of the culture of an organisation, it becomes much easier to choose the correct path when faced with difficult choices.

This is because the choice has already been made in the “time of peace”.

5. Mission Command Relationships

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity, ” said General George Smith Patton.

A key principle of the British Army is exactly this – Mission Command. A leader issues an order and then entrusts their subordinates to carry it out without having to micro manage or check up on them.

The success of the Mission Command relationship is two-fold. Firstly it requires the leader to empower and equip those below them to carry out the order, and to have the trust in them to do it.

Secondly it requires the subordinate to understand the mission, know what the leader wants to achieve, to take initiative, problem solve and accept responsibility to get on with the job.

Mission command develops new leaders who are creative, confident and effective, so they are in return empowered to guide their teams through uncertain times in the future.


Article compiled by Brendan Smith, COO of Valcare.

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