Business leader looking up in a crowd

30 Aug 2023

Leadership in uncertain times

The world is experiencing a season of uncertainty, between geopolitical tensions, global inflation, climate change and associated natural disasters, and worries of another pandemic. Locally, load-shedding, urban decay, political mud-slinging and corruption dominate headlines. What does effective leadership look like in these uncertain times?


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“I have studied courageous crisis leaders for two decades, and through this work, I know that real leaders are not born; the ability to help others triumph over adversity is not written into their genetic code. They are, instead, made. They are forged in crisis. Leaders become ‘real’ when they practise a few key behaviours that gird and inspire people through difficult times,” writes Nancy Koehn, the James E Robison Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and author of Forged in Crisis: The Making of Five Courageous Leaders.

These behaviours include:

  • Acknowledging people’s fears, then encouraging resolve
  • Giving people a role and purpose
  • Emphasising experimentation and learning
  • Tending to energy and emotion – their own, and then others’.

“Your job, as a leader today, is to provide both brutal honesty – a clear accounting of the challenges your locality, company, nonprofit, or team faces – and credible hope that collectively you and your people have the resources needed to meet the threats you face each day: determination, solidarity, strength, shared purpose, humanity, kindness, and resilience,” Koehn says.

Acknowledge fear; inspire collective action

Investec Group chief executive Fani Titi says leaders must “paint a picture of a common future you are working towards”. This entails not only getting people to understand what that future looks like, but also to participate in the painting of the picture; buying into it and committing to it.

“Once there is a clear picture, trust your people to make decisions and get on with it,” he says. “This involves the choices you make as a team and as a leader. What are the most important things you need to do to get to the future or desired state? Leaders need to ‘declutter’ that picture of the future – and leave their people to do what they need to do.”

Titi says Investec has a clear set of objectives and a culture that empowers leaders to work with their teams to achieve them, which has helped the group to weather tough times, even when this meant making difficult calls, such as winding down its Australian operations.

“In 2019, we outlined a strategy to simplify, focus and grow the Investec Group,” he says. “It was important to have a plan our people could understand. People could relate to it and see what their role was in achieving the plan. Of course, plans are important but people, leadership and motivation are more important. Even before you have a magnificent plan, make sure you have the right people in the room to develop and deliver on it.”

Fani Titi
Fani Titi, Investec Group Chief Executive

Even before you have a magnificent plan, make sure you have the right people in the room to develop and deliver on it.


Create an enabling environment

Neal Froneman, CEO of Sibanye-Stillwater, says leadership involves understanding and motivating people, enabling them to flourish in the right environment.

“For me, leadership is the responsibility to create the right conditions for individuals from different backgrounds and with complementary skills to work together, find solutions, and create robust plans,” he says. “I am blessed to lead a team of highly competent professionals in their fields with a rich diversity of experience. In fact, I don’t refer to myself as the chief executive officer, but rather as the chief enabling officer. Effective leadership involves empowering others, embracing diversity and inclusivity, being nimble and entrepreneurial, and challenging accepted norms to deliver value.”

Froneman attributes Sibanye-Stillwater’s success in the face of uncertainty to several factors. “Our ability to adapt and be agile in response to market conditions has been crucial. We have diversified our portfolio and capitalised on new opportunities, such as the expansion into platinum group metals and battery metals. We have adapted to circumstances, and have never been guilty of seeing the world how we would like it to be, but rather where it is going. Dealing with reality, even when that was not popular, palatable or in accordance with our preconceived cognitive biases, has served us well. As a result, our strategy has been built on a solid foundation.

“Our emphasis on shared value creation, teamwork, and enabling leadership has fostered a resilient and motivated management team. Our focus on high-quality work, strong values, and principled decision-making has also contributed to our success.”

Link between strategy and leadership is paramount

Nick Binedell, strategy professor and founding director of GIBS, recently said, “Leading South Africa is like sprinting in a fog barefoot and running over thorns.”

While he was referring to the task of leading a country beleaguered by load-shedding, social unrest, and extreme weather events, among other things, the analogy applies to business too. Success in developing “barefoot running skills”, he says, comes down to strategic leadership.

“Strategy is about what you’re going to do next that will have substance and give you high performance and competitive advantage,” he says. “It’s a future focus thing. Management is more about managing what you’re doing now. Leadership recognises it’s no good having great ideas unless you have the ability to get them implemented. There’s a necessary synergy between strategy and leadership.”

Storms versus plain sailing

Professor Joost de Haas, adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at INSEAD Business School, who teaches Managing Corporate Turnarounds, once said: “If you can sail a ship through a true storm, you will be a better captain.”

But what about when it’s not the business that’s distressed – when it’s the entire business landscape? Are different leadership skills required? “I don’t think it’s necessarily different traits needed,” says Titi.

“In tough times, decisions are easier to make because there is a sense of risk to the common future. There’s a sense of clarity when there is an impending difficulty and hard choices need to be made. There’s a unity of purpose and so it’s easier for teams to focus on what is important. In better times, you need to find that same discipline and motivate people for greater achievement, which tends to be harder.”

Froneman says consistent leadership is necessary for sustainable success, but it’s essential to also adapt to circumstances. “One has to lead more from the front during hard times, which requires a subtle shift in focus and approach with a greater degree of urgency, autocracy and delegation of clear and unequivocal responsibilities,” he says. “In easier times, one has to guard against complacency creeping in, and that is the time when the most work has to be done to position the organisation for the future without the imperative of a burning platform to create the imperative for change. Leadership during easy times primarily involves supporting and enabling your team and providing strategic guidance, whereas in tougher times it may be more necessary to lead from the front and by example.”

Leadership in flux?

“Peter Drucker once said the questions leaders answer are timeless, but the answers change,” says Binedell, adding that leadership needs to change because the world and organisations are changing.

“In many ways, our world is consistent, but in others it’s inconsistent, paradoxical and contradictory. A lot of the way we live and work endures, but much has also changed in the last five years.”

Based on recent shifts, including how globalisation has changed shape, the rise of China, the virtualisation of life, the depth of interdependence between industries, ripple effects from Covid-19, and so on, Binedell suggests that while leaders might be pursuing similar goals, how they work towards them has evolved.

Zooming in on ethics

“Typically, philosophers or ethicists do not know much about business, while business leaders are not necessarily trained to understand how to prioritise ethical decision-making in their work,” says Dr. Eelco Fiole, co-founder and managing partner of Alpha Governance Partners and adjunct professor of finance ethics at the University of Neuchâtel.

Fiole has long noted the need for executive education on ethics, but says there’s been a lack of interest from business. However, this is changing – a trend driven by several factors. These include an increasing focus on ESG, in terms of environmental sustainability and social impact requirements, and rising complexity within capital markets and organisations. Another factor is “radical transparency” – the democratisation of information through technological advances such as AI, and increased scrutiny of institutions and companies aimed at improving accountability.

While Fiole says there’s little research available (or maybe even possible) to demonstrate that making leadership decisions based on ethical frameworks yields better results, there’s growing momentum around the idea that this is the case, thanks to an increased focus on organisational purpose (companies’ roles beyond merely driving profits, but rather finding solutions for society while being profitable).

“The definition of ethics is doing the right thing, which is vague. But if you’re a leader, it’s about asking, ‘What is the right act?’ That’s something you can define,” Fiole says, suggesting the process is about including an ethical analysis that results in finding the best course of action, all things considered.

However, leaders are generally not trained to perform ethical analyses, so they end up taking decisions based on consensus or gut feel, or maybe personal ethics.  Subscribing to a defined ethical framework ensures there’s a “checklist” to apply to decision-making to help the organisation move closer to its stated goals and aspirations, while navigating ethical risks.

Fiole says there’s no one perfect ethical single model to navigate reality, but there are thinking systems designed to help leaders and organisations improve ethical decision-making approaches. He points to the growth of the B Corporations movement as an example, which aims to help business to balance profit with purpose, creating standards, policies, tools, and programmes to shift the behaviour, culture, and structural underpinnings of capitalism. The end goal: to transform the economic system into a more inclusive, equitable, and regenerative global economy. A core pillar of the movement is ethical leadership.

Strategising in an uncertain world

“There is only one prediction I would be prepared to make about the future with a high degree of confidence: the pace of change will be unrelenting and increase exponentially,” says Froneman.

“Strategising in times like this is critical. For example, the transformation to a clean energy economy to avert global catastrophe on an unheard-of timescale will make previous global transformations look absolutely pedestrian. There are many other forces, such as intelligent advances and geopolitics, that create new playing fields on a regular basis.

At Sibanye-Stillwater, we have embraced the concept of anti-fragility, which essentially means that we become stronger through exposure to the shocks that buffet us, and even take actions to anticipate. I work with my team to develop agile strategies that can adapt to changing circumstances. Planning involves scenario analysis, considering various outcomes and developing contingency plans to mitigate risks and capitalise on opportunities during the ‘Kairos moments’ that present themselves before they pass us by. In this area, we are class-leading.”

Retaining optimism

Titi says leaders need to be optimistic and believe in the ability of their team to carve a path through a difficult time. “You always have to focus on what you’re trying to create and what is possible, as opposed to being weighed down by the fog of negativity that surrounds you. You need to be optimistic and continue to motivate the team to achieve what you’ve set out to achieve.”

There’s also a need to be flexible and agile. “As a leader, you’ve got to understand that in tougher times, people experience a sense of uncertainty and fear because risks can appear to be existential, so you need to continue to give people hope. Retaining a sense of stability, calm and focus is important. The courage to make calls in tough times is really something that could be the differentiator between success and failure.

More communication is better than less in a crisis. It doesn’t mean you have all the answers. Acknowledge that it’s tough, that things look bleak but you’ll get through it. Just be present, authentic and close to your people so they know you’re walking through the crisis with them.”

Getting practical

Practical pointers from leaders who are walking the talk.


  • Look to do something meaningful where you are and tomorrow tends to take care of itself. Sometimes, younger people tend to think too far ahead. If you have a level of preparation, you apply yourself, you have the right values, the future can take care of itself.
  • During challenging periods, my predecessor, Stephen Koseff, would say to me, “Head down and keep batting.” The tough times do pass. In the toughest of times, you need the tenacity and belief to keep doing what you believe is right. Whenever we’re facing a challenge, he still calls me and says, “Fani, keep batting, just keep your head down.”
  • Choose your business partners as though you’re going to marry them (the best business advice I’ve been given).
  • Complete what you start, always be well prepared and deliver the highest quality you can. Be number one in everything you do.
  • Respect the company you work for – don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
  • Teamwork is vital, so galvanise that skill. People are the most important part of the business.
  • Learn multi-skilling and don’t get trapped in silos.
  • Work hard, develop stamina, and always challenge the status quo.
  • Have strong values and principles and stick to them.
  • Leaders, like golfers, must study what they do. Fifty years ago, very few executives went to business school. Today, very few don’t. Business school is a place where you can exchange ideas, learn from academics, practitioners and colleagues.
  • Practise looking in the mirror and asking yourselfthe deeper questions about what you’re doing and why. Good leadership comes more from the “why” than the “how”.
  • Learn from everyone and copy no one.

This article originally appeared in Acumen - the quarterly magazine of the Gordon Institute of Business Science