Four Key Skills That Are Vital to Leading Change in Uncertain Times

Newcastle Business School’s Helen Rodgers, leadership and business management expert, explores four key competencies leaders should adopt during times of crisis – and why these are more important now than ever before.

“This last year has been the ultimate test for businesses across the world. From China to Italy, the UK to the US, there are very few organisations who have not been impacted by Covid-19.  The way business leaders have reacted to the unforeseen has been vital to their organisations’ survival – never before has there been such a magnifying glass on their ability to manage change effectively and responsibly. 

From Planned to Emergent Change

As is the nature of a crisis, there is little time to prepare for the situation. Instead, leaders have to cast linear change management tactics aside - the type they would normally bring into play when asking employees to accept a new technology, for example. Instead, the focus must be on agile and emergent approaches to change management, with more traditional leadership qualities, such as authority, giving way to humility, adaptability, vision and engagement; four competencies that IMD’s Center for Digital Business Transformation refer to as the HAVE mindset.

1. Showing Humility

n times of rapid change, leaders who are honest about not having all the answers, but show willing to support their employees, are praised. Such leaders are transparent about the situation (including what they don’t know), while painting a compelling picture of the future to inspire their employees and customers.

At the start of the first UK lockdown, retail chain Timpson was one business recognised for their empathetic yet genuine response. Their 5,500 employees were kept on full pay while shops remained closed and, in March 2020, CEO James Timpson tweeted part of a memo he issued to staff, saying:  

As The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper comments: “if you operate ethically, you look to share value throughout the supply chain, and if no stakeholder gains disproportionately at the expense of another, then you have a sustainable business.”

Employers that go the extra mile for their staff will inspire commitment and receive more than a mile back. 

2. Embracing Adaptability

Times of change accelerate organisations into new ways of working. In the case of Covid-19, many companies had to adopt new working practices as ‘working from home’ became the norm. However, according to a survey by Mercer, only 22% of organisations were ready for mass remote working. Many of the remaining relied on their leadership teams to roll-out new policies and procedures, and to communicate them effectively, in order for their operations to continue.

In unsettled times, effective leadership means having the confidence to revise business plans and find new ways to serve customers and employees. For Irish firm Flying Elephant Productions, a builder of event stages and props, this meant turning the wood they previously used for stages into home desks during lockdown one. In just one month, they sold more than 2,000 desks and co-owner Michael Keelan has since diversified their product range to include sanitiser stations and garden furniture. 

3. Harnessing a Long-Term Vision

Amid any crisis, leaders become concerned with the day-to-day management of the unfolding situation. For many leaders during the pandemic, this meant responding to new trends as they emerged - such as the unprecedented rise in online shopping or digital media consumption. However, the business environment now is different to where it was before the pandemic, and it will continue to evolve as a result. Leaders must be prepared and look ahead to the future.

In 2020, retailer Next took steps to ensure their long-term goals were not lost amid their shorter-term reactions to the pandemic. Chief executive Simon Wolfson accelerated their longer-term business plan by focusing on leveraging investment in warehousing, call centres, distribution assets, marketing and systems. “This will determine our longer-term destiny,” he said. “That requires a culture that embraces change and is not afraid to take risks – no mean feat in a crisis.”

4. A Willingness to Constantly Engage

The development of solid internal and external communications strategies can also help leaders to weather the storms of a crisis.

Internal communications are vital within any change management strategy; leaders should explain the situation and their intentions to their employees before they tell the rest of the world. Sharing contiuous updates also helps to ensure their staff feel involved, valued and engaged throughout.

Yet effective customer communication is also key during times of change. Many of the UK’s supermarkets were especially effective at communicating new processes last spring, when they were hit with unprecedented demand and the need to introduce social distancing measures. Clear, concise messaging from their CEOs arrived in their customers’ inboxes every week – ensuring they maintained their support and co-operation, even during the most challenging periods.

Leadership for Responsible Change

As a signatory of the UN sponsored Principles of Responsible Management Education, Newcastle Business School is committed to helping business leaders understand the impact they can have, especially during such uncertain times.

On our part-time distance learning Business and Management MSc, students critically explore how to manage and lead positive change during a dedicated module, Leadership for Responsible Change. It is our mission to help them gain the skills and confidence needed to become leaders who can make a difference within their organisation, and the wider world.”


Helen Rodgers is the programme lead on our Business and Management MSc distance learning course. Discover more the course, and how it could help you to become the leader tomorrow needs, by filling in the form below.

Request More Information 

Fill in your details below and a member of the team will be in touch.

(All fields marked with * are required) 

Calls may be recorded for quality and training purposes. By submitting your information, you agree that we may contact you via email, phone, SMS or WhatsApp.

Your details will be used to supply the information you requested and in accordance with our Privacy Policy.