Leading in the Face of Ambiguity and Uncertainty

user Andrew Blum

I’ve been writing about the challenge of leading in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity since the dot-com crisis in 2000. Every year since then, it’s been a relevant theme as there have continued to be events that leave business leaders wondering and worrying about fundamental, unpredictable disruptions lurking beneath the surface. Yet no one could have predicted today’s situation. COVID-19 has left us all swirling at previously unimaginable levels of ambiguity and uncertainty. And racial injustices, which have burst to the surface most recently with the killing of George Floyd, have made leaders come to terms with the fact that the status quo needs to be permanently and fundamentally disrupted. And yet, it is largely unclear where we go from here…or really even how to get there.

Research shows that living with a permanent sense of uncertainty creates stress, and over time can even lead to disease in individuals and true dysfunction in organizations. This raises an important question:

How can we find clarity in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty? 

Where can we find anchors that keep us from floating in a sea of confusion and angst? What can we do as leaders to help our teams maintain hope and stay productive? The answer lies in the fundamentals of leadership and looking at things that are in our control. This can be counter-intuitive because, as leaders, we tend to want to control everything. The challenge with this instinctual leadership response is that the more variables we deal with and the more we sense things are outside of our control, the more control and safety we seek. The reality here is that this desire for measurement and control often distracts us from the real challenge of finding comfort and productive action in the face of uncertainty. We get caught up in the idea of making uncertainty certain, but this notion puts us in a vicious cycle that has no end.

There are at least six key factors – for yourself and your team(s) – that can be actively managed in the context of any swirl, be it economic, strategic, or personal. In concert, these factors form an ecosystem that can bolster you against the winds of change and enable you to meet them head-on:

  • CLEAR INTENTION – If you know what you are up to in your life, in your role, and in your career as a leader, then you have a clear intention, which is different than a goal, in that a goal is usually time-bound, while an intention transcends timeframes. For example, one of my partners holds the intention of being a vehicle for connection and possibility. Regardless of how circumstances change, she remains true to her intent and does not adapt it to a shifting environment. In this sense, she is always acting in accordance with her intention and is less subject to the volatility of things changing around her.
  • FAITH IN YOURSELF – This characteristic is distinct from confidence because confidence often comes from experience. Faith in yourself is knowing that you will find a way to succeed and trusting in your own capacities as a leader even when you don’t have the confidence that experience can provide. You find yourself rested in the knowledge that you will handle whatever comes up, even when you are in unfamiliar territory or are unsure of where to start. You know that you will find a way to get the job done, regardless of whether or not you know exactly how.
  • WILLINGNESS TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE – The third and perhaps most important factor is your willingness to be uncomfortable. If you know what you are up to, have faith in yourself, and fully accept that discomfort is a guaranteed component of the dynamic reality we all live in, then you are not deterred or frustrated when it comes. Instead, you lean into it. This is something that we are all learning to accept. Innovative leaders, extreme athletes, and many of the most admired people on the planet all have been willing to face great discomfort. No mountain has been climbed or great innovation realized without extreme discomfort. It’s a part of the game. When discomfort is not seen as a sign that something is wrong, and instead is accepted without hesitation – and even embraced – you are getting somewhere.
  • RELATIONSHIP – It is connection, to one another or to a common belief, that forms the foundation of any team, especially one that is dealing with change. As leaders, we need to recognize that our teams are struggling to make sense of a situation that is not only unimaginable but also unprecedented. Devoid of leadership at the highest levels of government, companies need their executives to lean in, step up, and create the connections that bond teams together. Relationship is the glue that holds all this together.
  • TRUST – Trust is a word that we all use, but few can define with precision. At Trium, we define trust as perceptions about someone’s competence, motive, and reliability. You can have a close relationship, but for it to be an effective working relationship there needs to be a high level of trust. This means you can count on someone’s skills and shared motives, and you can count on them to do what they say they are going to do. A team that has high levels of relationship and trust is nearly unbeatable if you add one last factor: shared purpose.
  • SHARED PURPOSE – Just as an individual leader must have a clear intention or a reason to do what they are doing that transcends the day-to-day fracas, so too must the team. The team must be committed to something bigger than themselves and their revenue targets. The team must have a clear and shared purpose to either correct OR to protect something. That purpose is the ballast that keeps the ship from drifting off course.

These are the most ambiguous of times. Truly nothing is certain right now. But as a leader, it is imperative that you find a way to anchor both yourself and your team. Actively managing these elements is something you can do. When this is your leadership focus, the negative impacts of uncertainty and ambiguity are diminished and you and your team will feel anchored, even in the most turbulent waters.

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