How Do I Lead into the Unknown?


I’ll bet you’ve joked, “Is that a light at the end of the tunnel or an oncoming train?”


Leading the way through times of uncertainty feels like that tunnel. Whether caused by a global pandemic, an organizational transition, or a bold initiative for change, the land of the unknown is destabilizing territory.

There is no way of escape. There is no going backward. There are no familiar landmarks. And, the light ahead is too small, too far off, to be of much comfort today.


Just this past week, I met with three different leaders who are each trying to navigate and lead their organizations through seasons of uncertainty.


Navigating the unknown is the land where leaders travel.

We feel the tension during times of crisis. We feel it during seasons of organizational change. And, surprisingly, we feel it as destabilizing waves that crash against new vision or ventures designed to expand the impact of our organization.


Q: What's a leader to do? How do we personally and corporately navigate the land of the unknown?

A: BUILD FROM THE KNOWN TO THE UNKNOWN

No, I'm not claiming this as a universal panacea for the challenges of change, but it is one of the most important disciplines of a leader during times of uncertainty. When you and your people are staring into the face of unknown, help them find solid footing on the foundation of all that is known. Remind them of all the non-moving parts. Talk about, tell stories about, and highlight all of the big stuff that is unthreatened and unchanged.


Resist the urge to oversell the opportunities of what lies ahead. Resist the temptation to call for trust in your character or track record. Instead, identify and champion the big stuff of values, mission, progress, personnel, etc., the glue that holds you together.


Maybe you don’t struggle with one of my fatal flaws, but I have repeatedly made the mistake of taking all those big knowns for granted. It seems so obvious to me that I assume everyone else sees those “givens” as clearly as I do. I spend my energies trying to focus our attention on the new territory ahead, on opportunities in the midst of the crisis, on the reasons for risk. My failure to remind people of the strong foundation that remains secure undermines our efforts to move forward.

The thing is, people move forward through a crisis or through a season of change by taking a series of single steps that bridge from the foundation of what is known into the vagaries of what is unknown.

The question to ask yourself as a leader is this, “What am I helping my people talk about?” Am I balancing my enthusiasm for the future with steady reminders of our security in the past? Am I connecting the dots between where we've been and where we are going? Am I asking them to blindly “trust me,” or am I helping them find secure footing from which to face the future?

As I sought to retrain myself to build from the known to the unknown, a handful of profound insights emerged that serve me well. Maybe they will speak to you.

  • What's known is usually greater than what’s unknown, even when it doesn’t feel that way.

  • The chaos of crisis usually attacks our favorite methods or strategies more than the outcomes we are in business to accomplish.

  • Sometimes the real issue is not about what is unknown, but is a matter of our inexperience or comfort living with the new reality.

  • Needed, Wanted, or even Wise initiatives of change are still a venture into the unknown and therefore trigger feelings of insecurity. That insecurity doesn’t mean something is wrong.

  • All change creates an experience of loss and loss is a process of grief.

  • Navigating our way through the unknown is the job of leadership, but equally, it is the nature of life. No wonder the Bible says we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 For 5.7)

The new year is right around the corner and with it I’m sure you face many unknowns. It’s a perfect time to start building this new habit. Commit yourself to review and remind your people of what is known as you lead by faith into the unknowns of the year ahead.



original image: "light in the tunnel"