How Leaders Demonstrate Comfort With Ambiguity

February 27, 2023

by John O. Burdett

Things are happening so fast that our language hasn’t caught up. Things are evolving so quickly that our emerging concept of what it means to be a leader hasn’t caught up either.

An Entirely New Way to Think About Work

When your office space is outsourced, when your software is rented by the month, when your computers are leased, when yesterday’s meeting was uploaded and transformed into a presentation overnight by an independent team that you have never met, when 50% plus of those who do the work don’t actually work for the company … the term “temporary” seems inadequate.

Transient, dynamic, partnering, gig workforce, virtual employment doesn’t really cover it either. Things are happening so fast that our language hasn’t caught up. Things are evolving so quickly that our emerging concept of what it means to be a leader hasn’t caught up either.

For the first time in history, intelligence – self-organising, learning systems – sits outside of the human brain. When computers write science fiction scripts, when companies open warehouse and distribution systems without any employees, when your new car drives itself home, we are describing not just a new way for society to create wealth but an entirely new way to think about work.

Expect the Unexpected

The printing press moved knowledge from the few to the many. The steam engine moved whole populations from the land to the factory. The combustion engine allowed common folk, previously unheard of, mobility. The computer brought connect-ability that turned the world into a global village. Artificial intelligence and self-learning machines offer a disruptive future that, by far, transcends anything experienced in the past.

There are points in history 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

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, as 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 to new ideas” 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.

This article is an extract from “Tomorrow’s Leadership Will Be Different“, © Orxestra® Inc.

John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »

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