In today’s economic climate, uncertainty is a fact of life. For a leader to be successful, he or she must be able to navigate and ultimately thrive in it.
If you’re like most people, uncertainty makes you panic. It can ruin a plan. It can make you lose sleep. It can stop you in your tracks. Most people try to avoid it.
A few, however, seek uncertainty out — and they deserve our attention. They understand and manage it with philosophical contemplation, scientific trial and error, or entrepreneurial aplomb. We often call these people effective leaders. And the very nature of leadership, as required today, is ambiguous.
Research done by the Executive Development Group suggests that the ability to positively manage uncertainty may be an essential trait of effective leaders, often found in those considered high potentials. Evidence shows it can be measured and learned.
Based on interviews with numerous C-level executives around the world, Elizabeth Mellon, executive director of Duke Corporate Education, said mindset — more than personality and behavior — forms an observable pattern among some of the most successful leaders and that a fearless approach to uncertainty is required.
“C-suite executives reveal a high degree of being comfortable with discomfort,” Mellon said. “They accommodate ambiguity and the uncertainty it brings. They are confident in making decisions that move their organizations into uncharted territory because they know this ensures long-term prosperity. They have ‘solid cores’ that allow them to navigate the unknown and accept not knowing everything. And they tend to have a longer view because they see time as a continuum in which uncertainty will come and go as they progress. Being uncertain doesn’t stifle them.”
A Fact of Life
In recent months, media outlets have filled their pages with and dedicated ample airtime to stories about uncertainty. While we believe uncertainty sneaks up on us, in reality, it is present every day. In fact, one could argue that ambiguity is simply “the way things are” in a post-industrial organization.
However, few discussions of or models for leadership acknowledge uncertainty as a fact.
“The classical leadership way of thinking that many business schools and many corporations used assumed a world that was controllable and predictable,” said Christine Williams, director of global people strategies and metrics at Standard Bank in Johannesburg, South Africa. “We have a hypothesis that emerging market [non-Western] leaders are actually much better suited to the way the world is going. One of the things our leaders have always had to do was deal with masses of ambiguity, enormous amounts of change.”
Measuring the ability to engage amid uncertainty is no more difficult than measuring any of the other important traits that we look for in self-assessments and multi-rater feedback. The traits of uncertainty tolerance can also be revealed through coaching and interviews.
Created by the Executive Development Group, Ambiguity Architect is a program designed to assess “comfort with discomfort.” It identifies eight types of workers based on their comfort level with ambiguous situations and their skill at confronting the ensuing uncertainty.
- Mystery seekers:These individuals are fascinated by what theydo not yet know. They might follow a path simply to see where it goes. Curiosity is high.
- Risk tolerators:They are not necessarily risk takers, but these folks have a willingness and an ability to make choices with incomplete information. Duke Corporate Education client and program participant Howard Edelstein summed up this kind of person’s style as: “Fail fast, but fail forward.” Risk tolerators may be intuitive, but more importantly, they can be described as seeing mistakes as a way to learn.
- Future scanners:These individuals are actually fluid thinkers who want to understand how a business operates and constantly consider how it will play out in future states. They are not “futurists,” but instead demonstrate a curiosity for the future.
- Tenacious challengers:These people are tireless in solving problems. They will, in some cases, drive others to do similarly, even though it is not always appreciated. If they don’t excite others, they will be seen as tough or — worst-case scenario — harsh.
- Exciters:These individuals were common in the study. They love what they do — and they want everyone else to love what they do, too. They want everyone to be excited about what they do. A behavior indicative of exciters might be efforts to make work fun for others in an organization.
- Flexible adjusters: These leaders exhibit two tendencies: the ability to admit they’re wrong and the ability to sell change to people whose self-interest is against the change. This is shown to be an especially significant advantage in business.
- Simplifiers:Using verbalor written methods, these individuals are able to take complicated ideas and help everyone in an organization understand where the organization is going. Being a simplifier appears to be something that can be learned.
- Focusers:Last but not least, focusers have the ability to identify and attack the critical few actions that need to be done, as well as shift to a different set of actions at the right time.
The study also identified sets of behaviors that tend to hobble performance during uncertain times and used these to classify workers.
- Poor transitioners: These folks have difficulty shifting from one kind of task or behavior to another. Indicators of this trait might include being extremely capable at some tasks but extremely challenged by others.
- Wet blankets: They dampen the energy of an organization. They may lack enthusiasm for their own work and respond negatively to the fervor of co-workers.
- Conflict avoiders: These individuals tend to be overly accommodating, often theresult of being highly averse to potentially controversial or heated situations.
- Muddy thinkers: They exhibit confusion that is sometimes self-inflicted. They process issues in a way that makes them more complicated than they need to be.
- Complex communicators: These people build up their explanations with unnecessarily complicated language. They use jargon presumptively.
- Detail junkies: Hooked on the little things, this group often considers smaller tactical issues while excluding more strategic points.
- Narrow thinkers: It’s as if these folks have tunnel vision. They are focused on the moment and sometimes blind to new possibilities. They’re not fluid at all.
- Repeaters: Tethered to the past, these individuals continue actions that may not be as effective as others.
In the debate over strengths-based leadership versus development, the problem of uncertainty suggests that the strengths approach ignores a career-altering issue. A person who is strong in one or two areas but weak when it comes to managing ambiguity is rendered ineffectual or counterproductive with uncertainty.
Three Tenets of Mastering the Unknown
Mastering uncertainty is learned over time, and the skills to do it should be included in the curriculum of leadership development initiatives. Here are three simple coaching suggestions.
- Learn to make a decision with incomplete information. Take a decision you would normally agonize over and, instead, make this decision based only on what you know now. Write it down and seal it in an envelope. Then, go through the normal cycle time of decision making. After the normal decision-making process is complete, get out the sealed decision and compare and contrast. Would you have made the same decision? Could you have made the decision yourself at the earlier stage and saved energy, time and money?
- Read around. Train your mind to be fluid and attuned to faint signals of impending change. Uncertainty is the ocean on which we sail. Reading around is a way of understanding that ocean and coming to terms with the inevitability of ambiguity.
- Examine five ideas or trends that you know nothing about, but that will affect the business in three to five years. Consider how they may or may not affect your products, services and jobs. Discuss how you can prepare for them.
Seeking the Uncertain Leader
Being uncertain sounds counterintuitive to good leadership today, when consensus building is code for vacillating, hand-wringing or worse. But think of it this way: A scientist must argue his point through every stage of the experiment — from hunch to hypothesis, from theory to law.
“In most situations, the ability to manage volatility, complexity, ambiguity and other forms of uncertainty is critical,” said Tim Last, regional managing director of Europe and Africa for Duke Corporate Education.“Executives that can effectively deal with dilemmas, incomplete information and unpredictable change give a competitive advantage to their organizations.”
Willingness to collaborate also appears as a positive trait in a number of personality assessment instruments. It’s not proven, but organizations seem to be more successful when there is teamwork; an open, nonjudgmental exchange of ideas; and creative thinking unbounded by hierarchy. When we rush to a decision that feels certain and safe, we are less likely to have participatory leadership that taps the power of the organization.
“High potentials and C-suite occupants inform us that they are at ease working ‘without a net,’” Mellon said. “Not only are they OK with uncertainty, they are able to risk their stake in the enterprise on the decisions that they make — often from incomplete information.It’s a bit like a high-wire act: They’re the ones who don’t need the safety net. ”
Measuring tolerance for uncertainty should be considered part of any learning organization’s process for development. The trait is that essential, given the power of uncertainty to cause poor decisions, weaken leadership and paralyze an organization.