Leaders thrive on ambiguity


‘To be omnipotent but friendless is to reign,’ wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was right. Even if a leader’s power doesn’t quite stretch to omnipotence, being a leader can be a lonely place. Isolation and ambiguity are powerfully destructive forces among the ranks of leaders.

In 1985 Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge was published, coauthored by Warren Bennis with Burt Nanus, founder and director of the Center of Futures Research at the University of Southern California. The book is based on research examining the lives of ninety of America’s best-known leaders. The eclectic mix of names included McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc and many other people from the worlds of business, sports, the arts – even an astronaut in Neil Armstrong.

‘They were right-brained and left-brained, tall and short, fat and thin, articulate and inarticulate, assertive and retiring, dressed for success and dressed for failure, participative and autocratic,’ says Bennis. But despite the diversity, they were united in one thing at least, they have all shown ‘mastery over present confusion’.

And the confusion is real and permanent. Dame Mary Marsh, who has led schools and major not-for-profit organizations, says: ‘One of the surprising things is how, at the time, you make decisions and you always make them on imperfect information. You look back and wonder how on earth you did that. But in any situation there is a strategic response to how you should move things forward and there are a range of options. Some may be slightly better than others. What really matters is how you implement what you decide to do.’

Liz Mellon of Duke Corporate Education and author of Inside the Leader’s Mind: Five Ways to Think Like a Leader, offers a different perspective on authenticity in leadership: ‘There’s a whole lot of ambiguity and complexity out there in the world. Imagine you are running a business that spans multiple countries, with thousands of employees, and all the complexity that goes with that, markets, politics, national cultures. Somehow you have to live with that, find a way through it, and still have the courage to take the decisions that need to be taken, while being comfortable with the level of complexity that’s coming at you.’

We were struck talking to one CEO who told us that he only became fully aware of the nature of the job when he had to make a multi-million-dollar decision about an IT system. He had an IT team. It had all been costed very carefully and the experts were advising that it was a necessary investment. But he realized that the buck stopped at his desk and he needed to trust the advice he was given and make a decision to go ahead without fully understanding what he was agreeing to.

Such situations are commonplace for many leaders. Sometimes the leader has huge amounts of data to support their decision making – whether they should go into Argentina, get out of Chile, or change personnel. Sometimes there’s no data at all.

For leaders coping with that kind of complexity it is difficult not to convey the pressure to others – inside and outside the organization. ‘Exactly,’ says Liz Mellon. ‘The leaders have to live with that uncertainty, and with a smile on their face, so that they are not worrying everybody else around them with the level of ambiguity they are actually coping with, day in, day out.’ Grin and bear it.


Liz Mellon’s Inside the Leader’s Mind is a book we recommend.


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