Into the Unknown: Leadership strategy for uncertain times

At last week’s Startup Breakfast Club, we gathered an influential group of speakers together to discuss what it means to be a leader in times of crisis.

We’d like to extend a special thanks to these speakers, Andy Hamilton, Director of Icehouse Ventures and Co-founder ofManaaki, Kirsty Allott, Co-director of Vargo + Lewis Consultants, and Felicity Brown, Head of Employee Services at MYOB

We’d also like to acknowledge Innovation Bay for their excellent webinar, “Leading through Uncertainty” a similar subject on which we also wrote an accompanying article.  

As we’ve stated frequently over the last wee while, there are few leadership qualities more useful in a time of crisis than initiative, excellent pressure handling skills, and the ability to take decisive action when required.  Most of the aforementioned qualities are required and can be found in team leaders and founders.  Every startup’s challenge is different but there remain some universal principles that can help a startup founder navigate rough seas. 

Here are a few of them. 

Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

More often than not, it’s easier to help someone than to ask for help yourself. Unfortunately, it’s common for the latter to be perceived as a sign of weakness; of a lack of knowledge, or – worse still – a sign of incompetence. 

However, asking questions is an essential part of learning. 

Take the example of Manaaki, the platform co-created by Andy Hamilton. Manaaki’s purpose is to help startup founders get answers from experts on business subjects. Yet, Andy has found that despite a sizable number of visitors to his platform, few dare to ask questions. 

Unfortunately, this aversion to asking questions is especially true with respect to founders. As a founder, you may feel as though you need to be a veritable encyclopedia on the ins and outs of your industry. How else are you meant to inspire confidence in your partners, employees, or customers… right?

But – the fact remains that very few founders actually go it alone, generally, even if they don’t have a co-founder, smart founders will surround themselves with good people with complementary skills answering questions that they can’t answer themselves. 

Expressing the need for support is not weakness, nor is it a personal failing to admit you don’t know everything there is to know. Rather, it’s the opposite. To make these admissions, both to yourself, colleagues, and partners, is a sign of strength. 

By asking for help, you’re expressing your desire to work as part of a team. By being transparent about the gaps in your knowledge, you’re showing your team the reason why they’re there; why their support and their work is vital.  

Asking questions reveals you’re wise enough to recognise that you don’t know everything. Moreover, it reveals an eagerness to learn more. 

Ask the deep questions.

We may all be facing the same pandemic, but we’re doing so from different viewpoints. There are myriad external factors that shape our experiences of lockdown, making each individual COVID story distinct from the next.

Kirsty Allott shared with us the DISC framework, a non-judgmental tool used for discussion of people’s behavioural differences. 

Use this framework to analyse yourself. You may see yourself encompassing more than one behaviour, and that’s fine. Overall, knowing where you fit in terms of behavioural styles can help you to better understand the way you work. In turn, this knowledge can help you be more efficient. 


This brief guide will help you find which style applies best to you:

  •  People who have both outgoing and task-oriented traits often exhibit DOMINANT and DIRECT behaviours. They usually focus on results, problem-solving, and bottom-line. Your mantra: Let’s do it now. Your stress reliever: exercise
  • Looking for recognition. They have both outgoing and people-oriented traits often exhibit INSPIRING and INTERACTIVE behaviours. They usually focus on interacting with people, having fun, and/or creating excitement. Your mantra: Let’s do it together. Your stress reliever: socialising.
  • People who have both reserved and people-oriented traits often exhibit SUPPORTIVE and STEADY behaviours. They usually focus on preserving relationships and on creating or maintaining peace and harmony. Your mantra: Let’s do it in a caring way. Your stress reliever: sleep
  • People who have both Reserved and task-oriented traits often exhibit CAUTIOUS and CAREFUL behaviours. They usually focus on facts, rules, and correctness. Your mantra: Let’s do it right. Your stress reliever: quiet time

Knowing more about yourself is one of the first steps towards self-improvement. But, this technique doesn’t just apply to you. Your partners, team, and customers will also benefit from this assessment. The more you understand them as people, the more effective your support will be. 

Nonetheless, no test, app, or strategy is a substitute for genuine conversation. If you want to learn, support, and work effectively with those around you, talk to them. Ask them meaningful questions and listen to what they say. It’s that easy. 

There is no ‘going back to normal’, nor should there be. 


The role of a leader doesn’t end when the situation goes back to normal. The unease won’t end the moment our government announces a return to level 2. We have been going through difficult times and we aren’t done with them yet. You may be able to return to the office in a handful of days, and that will no doubt be a relief to some. Yet, constant vigilance is needed to ensure our progress thus far hasn’t been for nothing. This, naturally, can cause anxiety.

Communication has never been so essential to your employees’ wellbeing. Your employees may wonder what going back to the office will look like; what will change and by how much. They may ask, and rightly so, what the new rules are and how they might have to change the way they work. 

You’ll have to understand that everyone is different and that their reactions will vary from one to the other. Communication and transparency are the keys to supporting everyone. Naturally, you won’t have all the answers.

Nevertheless, you should try to share as much as you know, and ensure your employees understand that you’re working your hardest to fill those gaps in your knowledge, wherever they may be. 

Move to the next chapter. 

Soon, we’ll return to something close to our pre-COVID day to day. The chapter of lockdown under COVID-19 will be soon be finished, but that doesn’t mean the pages will flick backwards. After all, why should they? 

Instead, write the next chapter. Being able to work again doesn’t mean we have to forget all we learned during these months. This is our chance to reset, to improve what can be improved and to embrace all the good practices and routines we created. In short, we need to choose between returning to what we once considered as normal, or to create a new normal. 

That starts with all the reflection we have engaged in these previous weeks. Can things be done differently? Be it with respect to your business or the personal wellbeing of you, your partners, employees or customers – what can change, what needs to change?

In order to help you move to the next chapter, Andy Hamilton shared with us the four main actions leaders can take to ensure they’re moving on to the chapter in front of them, rather than flicking back. 

The first centres around communication. In previous blogs, we’ve repeated the importance of communication a lot, but for good reason. Speak openly and clearly about everything, but try to inspire hope where you can – it’s what teams nationwide need to hear right now. 

Secondly, if you didn’t experience a recession period by yourself then go find someone who did, who survived, and came out stronger from it. Speak with them, ask questions, and try and learn from their experience. 

Thirdly, think about extending your runway. Is it possible to get more investors or is it necessary to make some sacrifices?  

Finally, take care of your team and their wellbeing, but not to the detriment of yours.  

Thanks again to our speakers, Andy, Kirsty and Felicity. Thanks also to the amazing South Island startup community who made the time to join us at last week’s startup breakfast club.

Aroha Nui.