WIG CEO Blog June 2019 – Leadership in turbulent times

In this month’s blog, our CEO Simon Ancona shares his insights on leadership in turbulent times – a topic that has gained importance throughout our membership as all sectors face times of almost unprecedented uncertainty.


Leadership in turbulent times

Leadership is a great bottomless subject that just keeps giving. Amazon is overflowing with titles (so to speak), and as a popular subject, it is rivalled only by today’s must-do diet or 30-minute recipe book. Of course, this is mostly because it is incredibly important and sits next, and related to, culture as the two fundamental enablers for any high-performing organisation. But is there anything fundamentally different about leadership in turbulent times and leadership under normal circumstances?

Leadership is the human process of motivating others to willingly give as much of themselves as they can in pursuit of a given goal. In simple terms, I have always thought of process, organisation and management as ‘circuitry’ and leadership as the electrical current; both needed for the light bulb to work. Although expressed in very many forms, the requirements of a good leader sit around vision, innovativeness, decisiveness, trustworthiness, compassion, empathy and motivating energy. In such terms, it is simple but not necessarily and instinctively easy, and of course, there are many traits and enabling behaviours that sit beneath the list above. Here are four crucial areas that I think need special attention in turbulent times.

Recognise where you are and what it means

‘Turbulent times’ could mean anything. As everyone knows, there is nothing harder to diagnose than an intermittent fault - unpredictable problems are the worst. ‘Turbulent’ suggests a state of crisis or near crisis that comes and goes over an extended period. So assuming at its worst turbulence is similar to crisis then what does that mean? Well for a start uncertainty, shortened decision cycles, less information for decision-making, too much information for proper analysis, a greater requirement for planning but less time for it, more serious implications for mistakes, increased stress, unstable goals and variable performance from team members. Collectively recognising the environment and context is more powerful than constantly comparing it to what normal looks like, even if that context is set to endure. If the context is the new normal then the times are no longer turbulent and more fundamental change is required to build institutional agility through adaptation.

Know thyself

Leading in normal circumstances requires constant attention. In turbulent times it needs more. Given that leadership is an exercise in motivation, the state of either leader or those whose will they are trying to affect, is an essential baseline in the equation. So when the pressure is on, this must be the starting point: the state of the leader and the state of those they are leading. It’s no accident that a significant ingredient in senior leadership programmes is self-reflection - ‘knowing thyself’.

There is an old adage - if everyone seems to be in a bad mood, it's not them, it's you. Often you are the last person to notice that what you thought was stepping up to the plate was having a negative rather than positive effect. The hissed advice from an Army Sergeant to a flustered junior Officer, “don’t run Sir, you’ll panic the troops” also has a ring of truth. Both calm and panic are equally contagious and will infect a team quickly. Part of the leader's role is to insulate their people from negative factors (interference, doubt, strain...). Acknowledging stress and how it manifests itself in your own behaviours is an essential part of mitigating against the wrong outcomes and building personal resilience.

Keep close to your people

It is impossible to effectively motivate someone you don’t know. When I first went to sea, a somewhat grizzled executive officer pointed out to me that as a ‘divisional officer’ I was now personally responsible for the welfare, morale and professional development of 30 sailors. He went on to warn me that if he ever found out, before I had, that any of them had issues at home that they were worried about, then there would be dire (and I think physical) consequences for me. A rather hard approach to essentially a soft skill, ‘know your people’ and pay constant attention.

It’s not the plan but the planning

There are only five reasons for failure: bad plan, good plan badly executed, no plan, too many plans and an act of God (badly predicted). But in turbulent times with uncertain outcomes, it’s actually not the plan as much as what is learned in the planning process. The planning process never stops in turbulent times – it becomes part of a routine instead of an end in itself. Planning, wait, change (disappointment, frustration, fatigue) is worse than planning, change assumptions, planning, change assumptions.

So in effect leadership in turbulent times is about paying extra attention to elements that ought to be a part of a leader's toolkit anyway. It’s about recognising the characteristics of changed circumstances, paying attention to your temperament and demeanour, getting closer to your people and setting up processes that neutralise uncertainty by embracing the reality of it.

We have been developing leaders with a cross-sector perspective for over 30 years through our Leadership Development Programmes and Development Seminars, helping them succeed and prosper through times of challenge and uncertainty. 


  • Simon Ancona CBE

    Chief Executive

    Simon Ancona enjoyed a full career in the Royal Navy including service in the Fleet Air Arm and appointments abroad in both Hong Kong and Bahrain. He commanded 4 warships, the UK’s Carrier Strike Group and UK maritime forces in the Middle East but also spent about 10 years in Whitehall including time in Ministerial outer office. His final appointment was as the Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff in charge of world-wide defence diplomacy and engagement. On leaving the military he worked as the Chief Operating Officer responsible for Network Rail’s North East London and Anglia region, which provided experience of commercial delivery and the challenges of operating at the seam of both the public and private sector. Married to Lisa he lives in South London and has two university aged children. Interests include cycling, walking, theatre, cooking, books and playing the blues Harmonica (normally when the house is empty).

    Simon writes a CEO Blog for WIG on topics that he identifies as relevant to and impacting on our members.