Category Archives: Uncertainty

Working with uncertainty


So, this is my very first blog.  Perhaps I don’t make it as an early-adopter but here I am…eventually.  I feel wary, curious, a bit unsettled, concerned about exposure whilst at the same time keen to engage.

Given my wobbly-legged foray into the blogosphere,  I thought I would kick off with the value of uncertainty and not-knowing as leadership attributes.  I don’t want to be an advocate for clueless dithering – but I do wonder if leaders, in their need to be seen as decisive and sure-footed, sometimes miss a trick.

No human being is ever totally sure, certain of themselves and others, at all times.  Those that claim otherwise are somewhere between delusional, dishonest and anxious – perhaps a heady mix of the above.  My hunch is that the very best leaders know when and how to engage with uncertainty so that it works to their advantage and to the advantage of others.

Part of a leader’s role is to enable their talented people to flourish and play their part in delivering whatever the organisation is there to do.  If a leader always knows best how can those around them feel that they are contributing? Recent research from Accenture ( reinforced what we already know about talent – that money isn’t enough to keep them interested.  If your best people don’t feel as if they are making a difference and influencing the environment they are working in then they’ll walk.   A leader who seems unfailingly certain can suck the oxygen from those around them, stifling creativity and innovation along the way.  In contrast a leader who has the gumption to ask a question rather than provide an answer, or even more boldly say “I’m not sure on this – what do you think?” may well be giving  their talented people space to perform.  This need not be abdication of responsibility.  A leader still needs to know when it’s their call to make but if they sit with uncertainty a smidgen longer then the decision may well end up being better informed.

As a leader you simply cannot know everything – and trying to do so is a sure way to drive your team up the wall and yourself to an early grave.  You are paying others to be experts, so it does seem that there is a real knack in knowing when to get the heck out of their way.  By accepting your uncertainty and not-knowingness you can avoid getting sucked into operational or technical detail – giving yourself the headspace to focus on what you are actually being paid to do.

I also believe that there is an umbilical link between tolerating uncertainty and being able to demonstrate resilience.  A leader who is able to role model the strength not to jump into a quick but ill-informed decision, is showing their followers that they too might be able to handle the anxiety stirred up by uncertainty.  They are demonstrating that uncertainty is survivable even if it’s uncomfortable and it may even pay dividends in the form of a more clued up choice or a side-stepped car crash.  The rider to all of this is knowing when being uncertain is a bad idea.  If there’s a fire – put it out and get on with it sharpish.

As a final thought – the defining characteristic of this market and economy is unpredictability.  The leader who can’t handle uncertainty is eventually going to get themselves and their organisation into trouble.