Embracing Uncertainty And Leading Through Adversity

uncertaintyWith the increasing disruption and complex challenges we face the future lies with Type R leaders — those who embrace uncertainty and use adversity, change and complex business and global challenges as opportunities for innovation and progress. This is true whether they are the head of a corporation, steering a team or project, charting the future of a not-for-profit or leading a city or nation. In other words, they create transformative resilience, springing forward, rather than bouncing back in the face of adversity.

Many of us, and the leaders around us, already have some of these skills as well as the ability to further cultivate them. Think of Mary Barra who became General Motor’s CEO in the midst of the biggest safety crisis and recall and met the crisis head on using it to transform the company’s culture to be more transparent. Frederick Hutson, one of the most successful young, African American entrepreneurs used the lessons he had learned during a stint in prison to focus on what he could and couldn’t control when his social enterprise and tech start-up faced a major security breach. And, Anne Mulcahy, who turned around Xerox’s $17bn in debt and transformed the organization’s culture, drew on her beginnings in human resources. She spent her first 90 days on airplanes learning from staff around the globe and in all parts of the organization about what wasn’t working.

After interviewing 150 CEOs at large corporations across countries and industries, researchers at University of Oxford’s Said Business School concluded that crisis is a key factor that enables leaders to successfully reinvent themselves and grow because it requires them to examine their identities and existing habits.

“Leaders with a strong sense of purpose use their values as their compass.”

Much of the potential for growth stems from altering how we frame adversity and our beliefs about finding opportunity in challenges. We can then bring the strengths, skills, and insights that this enables into our businesses as well as how we contribute as leaders to our communities and the global challenges that we face.

Looking at research across psychology, neuroscience, business and international relations as well as conversations with everyone from corporate, not for profit and world leaders to coworkers and mentors, six common characteristics and skills clearly support Type Rs allowing them to lead through adversity and create Transformative Resilience:


Leaders have to be able to continually adapt the roles they play whether maintaining productivity, inspiring colleagues to adjust to new realities or seeking out the resources needed at a given time. But they also have to be agile in adapting their vision, strategies and tactics as circumstances and the world around them change and require different approaches.

Healthy relationship to control

One of the keys for Type R leaders is harmonizing our belief that we can steer our lives and shape the fates of our businesses or domains within which we work with an appreciation for the importance of external factors and the number of things that lie outside our control so that we can redirect our attention to the areas where we can be effective and have an impact.

Continual learning

Harvard University research shows that one of the most important ways that we learn to lead is by going through challenging experiences and finding meaning and new skills in the process. Continual learning is also one of our greatest tools for progress and innovation. By drawing lessons, new information and skills out of our experiences and the circumstances in which we find ourselves we create forward motion.


A sense of purpose and a set of unwavering core values helps insulate leaders from life’s everyday stresses and challenging events giving them something larger towards which they can work. But it also creates stability that others can rely upon. Leaders with a strong sense of purpose use their values as their compass—these values keep them on course regardless of the chaos, confusion or challenges they face.

Leveraging support

Garnering the support of others helps us as leaders expand outside the confines and limitations of our own thinking- especially in the face of particularly stressful or novel challenges- to come up with appropriate new solutions and crowd-source critical resources whether intellectual, financial, physical or emotional. But research shows that support also helps mitigate stress and its physiological impacts, including reducing risks of mortality.

Active engagement

Actively engaging with the challenges that we face rather than being avoidant allows us to course correct and discover productive ways ahead following stress and challenge. If we see something as a challenge, rather than a threat, we are more likely to engage, be less stressed and have more effective outcomes.

While “expert” knowledge has a role to play, the rapidly changing and turbulent realities we face require nothing less than transforming the way we approach leadership and the vision that we bring to it. Where Type R leaders stand out from others and have something unique to offer is the ability to reframe the circumstances and create possibilities that didn’t exist before in ways that will allow us to thrive in the face of adversity.