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ASCM Insights

Leading Through Uncertainty


“It is our attitude to events, not events themselves, that we can control,” the Greek philosopher Epictetus once wrote. Nearly 2,000 years later, these words still ring true. In times of fear and uncertainty, like the ones we experienced this year, there is only so much we as people managers can do to control or improve the situation. What we can do, however, is lead with transparency, clarity and resilience.

Supply chain is a domain that is used to dealing with various types of disruption: issues with raw material production, labor shortages, transportation difficulties and so on. Each of these micro-disruptions can be mitigated, avoided or reconciled through good working practices. When it comes to macro-level disruptions, strong, effective leadership is essential to providing inspiration and helping your workforce push through the challenges — many of which fall outside of the company’s control.

This is not to say that such circumstances require pontification and showing off your leadership prowess. Rather, use your experience and expertise to react to the situation with speed, agility and a sense of purpose, and clearly explain to employees what is happening and why. An absence of information often fuels negative speculation, which can have a detrimental effect on morale and overall business operations. Effective leaders use all the tools at their disposal to reach their teams, whether by phone, email, collaboration tools or other communication methods.

Don’t spend all of your effort trying to offer solutions where none exist. Instead, focus on reinstating the vision and purpose of the organization’s mission, listening to your people about their concerns, and reassuring them. You can’t provide all the answers to the current crisis, but your people need to know that there is stability and dependability at the top. If you have a business contingency plan, share it. If you don’t, be honest and state that you are actively working on one and that you will share it soon. There is nothing to be gained from keeping information from your employees. In fact, your honesty might even inspire some to step up and assist as part of a crisis-management team.

As supply chain leaders, we tend to deal with large workforces that are geographically distributed. Some teams may be based in different buildings or different countries. Geographic distance often results in cultural differences, which can be even more apparent in times of great stress. The best leaders understand that adapting their communication styles is necessary for effective communication across borders. One feature that should never change, however, is a commitment to authenticity.

When working with a spread-out workforce, it is even more important for communication to be a frequent, bidirectional — or even multidirectional — practice. Set a cadence to keep your teams updated on progress, even if that progress is small. The continued focus on problem-solving ensures that everyone in the organization knows you are actively working on the situation and that it is top of mind for you and the rest of your leadership team. Furthermore, always welcome feedback and ensure people know they can share ideas or criticism without fear of getting in trouble. Directly address any feedback that requires a response.

Above all, engage your workforce, show employees that they are being heard, and prove to them that the leadership team is actively engaged in issue resolution.

Times of crisis require excellent leadership skills. The supply chain profession has operational nuances that make some stressful times even more challenging than they are for other business units. But with the right focus and engagement, a strong and insightful leader can help a team and organization overcome significant difficulty and even flourish when they emerge on the other side.

About the Author

Saif Rivers Vice President of Global Business Services , IBM

Saif Rivers is vice president of global business services at IBM. He may be contacted at

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