Tomorrow's Leaders Are Comfortable With Ambiguity

There are points in time when the more we know, the more we realise how little we know. We are in such a time. The future role of robotics/cobotics, the nature and design of tomorrow's corporation, the potential impact of medical breakthroughs and how tomorrow's technology, generally, is going to shape the endeavour – arguably, the most innovative creation our species has ever achieved – that we call "the organisation" remain, at best, "uncertain". If you think you "know", take an aspirin, lie down and hopefully the feeling will pass.

"Anticipation" is to identify that which can be expected. We don't really know what tomorrow holds other than … to expect the unexpected. Furthermore, the scope and nature of change that lies ahead isn't like passing through bad weather. It's akin to being engulfed by a hurricane that is merely a harbinger of the even bigger storm front that lies ahead.

"Comfort with ambiguity" is being comfortable with being uncomfortable. It's the art of not knowing but, when necessary, making the right decision anyway. It's far less about being right than it is doing the right things. It's about interpreting the organisation's values as a springboard for action and providing the freedom to move beyond what has been – not as a restrictive set of rules.

There is a well-established relationship between entrepreneurship and comfort with ambiguity. It's called risk. Recognising a great idea, relentless focus, a results-driven mentality and real-time awareness are the mark of the entrepreneur. As is avoiding, what Jeff Bezos calls, "day 2 stasis." Day 1 leaders keep the customer at the centre of everything they do, are quick to embrace meaningful trends, are paranoid about the bottom line and fail fast and move on. Most leaders see rejection as a setback. Entrepreneurs view it as just one more step on the road to success. Above all, successful entrepreneurs know how and when to say no. Corporate executives manage risk … entrepreneurs live it every day.

There is also an important team dimension to comfort with ambiguity. As a long-suffering child of the perceived need for rigid hierarchy, it has long been assumed that the team worked for the team leader. "Fast", "flat", "flexible", "focused" and "fertile" changes all that. Moving forward, the leader will work for the team. This implies a far subtler relationship; a bond where formal authority gives way to trust, mutual respect and the quest for authenticity. Instruction and "telling" were relatively straightforward. Followership rooted in influence moves the leader into far murkier waters. Not that there is much of a choice when technical know-how and customer insight are shared across the team. If you can't coach, you can't lead!

And the difference that makes a difference: Recognise that only those who can see what others cannot see … can do what others say cannot be done. Differentiate between those who deliver based on what is asked of them and those who show true initiative. Support the former … invest in the latter.

Insights from "Tomorrow's Leadership Will Be Different".