On Leadership: The glory of uncertainty

Leaders have traditionally been conditioned to be certain. Conditioned to know the answer and instill confidence in leading the way forward. After all, isn’t that exactly what good leadership is all about?

Not necessarily.

CertaintyThe problem with certainty is that it leaves no room for learning. Mark Twain said, “It is not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble, but rather what we know for certain that just ain’t so”. Certainty is the enemy of curiosity and curiosity is the gateway to exploration, learning and finding a ‘better way’. If the world has changed we need to do things differently. The world has changed!

This means that leaders need to challenge the status quo; as a leader you need to be able to hold up the previously unchallenged assumptions within your organization and subject them to review and possible revision. The real task of leadership is leading change and ensuring that your internal rate of change is matching the exponential external rate of change. Jack Walsh once said, “when the rate of change out there exceeds the rate of change in here, the end is in sight”.

Leaders need to know how to hold uncertainty as a means of allowing exploration, curiosity and ultimately, adapting to a changing reality. Certainty in uncertain times leads to an arthritic condition that inhibits adaptability. It invariably proves to be a fatal condition.

How can you as a leader hold open the space of uncertainty in such a manner that allows confident exploration? It might help to interpret ‘uncertainty’ as ‘openness’. Being ‘uncertain’ implies an openness to new ways of seeing things and holding less tightly to the way things have always been done; to loosen the grip on what we think is right. It is willingness to challenge and test assumptions and formulae that have, until this point in time, worked and brought success. It is the foresight to ‘fix’ something before it is broken. It means leading others in a change dance that is as difficult as it is continuous. It is knowing how to pause but recognizing that comfort can be the enemy of movement, and moving forward is non-negotiable.

Being ‘certain’ might just be the thing that gets you into trouble as a leader. I recall seeing the statement, ‘uncertainty might be an uncomfortable position but certainty is an absurd one’.

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