A Balancing Act: Leadership in Volatile Circumstances

A core tenet of good leadership is the ability to adapt to changing and volatile circumstances. The leader in the digital age must refocus priorities, be flexible in their leadership style, and be open to learn from others.

Last week, Bill Gates stepped down from his position on the Microsoft Board and resigned from the Board of Berkshire Hathaway to focus on his philanthropic endeavours. In his words, he did this “to effectively prioritise my commitment to addressing some of the world’s toughest challenges.” Gates has chosen to refocus his influence and time during these unprecedented circumstances. Working out what is most important and where you can add the most value is something that leaders of all organisations can adopt during these extraordinary times.

The triple focus

When a leader has focus, they’re able to put a spotlight on any of the goals they’ve set. They won’t let anything distract them from reaching these goals. Laser focus demands prioritisation.With that comes the skill to still be able to see the bigger picture and the flexibility to re-focus priorities to fit extenuating circumstances.

However, it’s important to remember that leaders do not just run a business – they are leading a human team. Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence, states that having a single-minded focus on goals isn’t enough. Leaders must develop a triple focus to address human concerns in three areas. These are self (inner), people (other), and system (outer) awareness. “Inner focus” refers to managing your own time and your personal priorities. “Other focus” builds our connections to the people in our network, and “outer focus” lets us navigate the external world. Goleman states that the challenge here is finding the right balance. Knowing when to use the right kind of focus at the right time, sensing emerging realities and opportunities.

The current circumstances will be new to so many leaders. How will they respond to leading virtual teams and a virtual workforce? Perhaps at a time when human connections are physically restricted, a good leader should prioritise “other focus” and relational support within the team. At a time when digital disruption, as well as physical threats, affect us, a visionary leader would look at how to strengthen the workforce during this extraordinary time. One clear way is to build resilience and career adaptability in the workforce. As events unfold it will be the resilience of people to able to cope with what comes may that will not only sustain them, but the business, the economy and society at large.

There has never been such an optimum time as now for everyone to consider their personal development and career goals. Leaders should encourage this.

You must be able to make a good judgement of which ‘focus’ you should be prioritising at any one time. Once these priorities are straight, they will be able to inform other aspects of your leadership – such as your leadership style.

Taking a step back

Another lesson that we can learn from Gates’ example is found in his justification that “the leadership at the Berkshire companies and Microsoft has never been stronger, so the time is right to take this step”. And prior to that he gave up his position as CEO on the basis that other people would be better suited at directing the company, and he was better at looking at the technology. This evidences the importance of knowing when to step back. Know what you are good at and understand where you can deliver the best value.

We have seen very direct examples in Donald Trump and Boris Johnson of what ‘leading from the front’ means in true Churchillian style. This boasts multiple benefits: by moulding your employees to your style of working, you can ensure that your vision is carried out and they stay true to brand values.

This front facing management style can be successful, but is unlikely to lead to long term loyalty. The alternative is to ‘lead from behind’. When leaders move out of the way and let their team take over, real growth can take place. Great leaders build teams of individuals that can operate on their own in almost any environment. This type of leadership will build a team of individuals that can be autonomous, solving problems or adapting as necessary to find solutions on their own. The more decentralised, the more potential productivity has to increase.

More recently, we have seen the growth of the ‘adaptive leader’. This is when you may begin with ‘leading from the front’, and over time transition to ‘leading from behind’. Leadership, in this sense, is more closely identified by both methods over a transitionary period of time. It may also be subdivided into states that teams go through in order to grow. A leader may find themselves in one stage with one group and another stage with a different group at any one time.

When a leader can take the initiative as to what works best at what time, and even tailor this for different teams of people simultaneously, they are able to manage changing circumstances. This is where having a priority on “other focus” comes in. Taking the time to know your team as individual people will help inform your decision on which leadership style to take and with whom.

It is therefore having the flexibility in your leadership style to know when to press down and when to hold back, that will carry your team through unprecedented times. When this is combined with knowing how to balance the focus of your priorities, the leader is ultimately performing a balancing act – and must learn from others to help navigate the way.

Learning from others and the environment

As John F. Kennedy said, “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other”. When things are rapidly changing, it is important to constantly learn and challenge yourself.

In Ten new leadership skills for an uncertain world, Bob Johansen listed having an immersive learning ability and ‘bio-empathy’ among the most important skills that will be needed in the future. When Johansen wrote this book in 2009, he probably didn’t envisage that the future he described would be as we see it today. He describes ‘bio-empathy’ as the ability to see things from nature’s point of view – to understand, respect and learn from nature’s patterns.  The UN’s environment chief Inger Andersen and leading scientists have said that the Covid-19 pandemic was a “clear warning shot” at how humanity’s abuse of the environment is leading to diseases jumping from wildlife to humans.

This time of isolation and remote-working, highlights that as a species we are deeply dependent on each other. One way to use Johansen’s ‘bio-empathy’ in our current context, is to learn from the aetiology of infection. Just as the virus spreads so seamlessly and uncontrollably between humans, so does the infectious rate of morale and leadership. How leaders respond and react will trickle through the workforce. This will eventually come to shape the resilience of your organisation as a whole.

Furthermore, this interconnectivity also highlights that leaders can no longer ignore the impact of their business operations on the wider community. Leaders must craft business goals and strategies to integrate social impact and environmental concerns at the core of their business operations. This is what Michael Porter and Mark Kramer call a ‘Shared Value’. Whilst these may now be old business theories, perhaps the global crisis will see a greater appreciation for ‘Shared Value’.


The world and external circumstances constantly change the economy, the corporate world, and how our everyday lives are governed. This shows how fragile all of the structures that seem so permanent really are. In these uncertain times, a leader must have the knowledge and wisdom to adapt and learn from their surroundings. They must build resilience and adaptability in themselves as well as their workforce.