May 13, 2020 | 4 min read
Originally published on Forbes
There is a Jewish Hasidic song that revolves around one line: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.” Right now, with the spread of COVID-19, this song feels especially poignant as the entire world is being tested for how well we can all handle living with ambiguity.
Being able to deal with ambiguity is one of the most important traits a leader needs to succeed in their role and, even more importantly, to be able to take on greater leadership roles in the future. Moving up the corporate ladder demands a broadening of perspective — a move from micromanagement of specific details to macro-management of strategy and complex organizational issues. Doing this requires the ability to make important decisions without complete information, to be able to adjust plans or even pivot the organization when the need calls and to be an anchor for the team by remaining calm under pressure so they can concentrate on getting their jobs done or, in other words, it requires dealing with ambiguity.
Knowing the details
There is a common belief that as leaders we need to be in control: that control and success go hand in hand. Many of us feel at our best when we arrive prepared for a meeting and we spend a lot of our time collecting or requesting data, so we can know better than our team, our boss, our customers or our investors. Structure, preparation, organization and being in control are seen as the best ways to arm ourselves against ambiguity. This is true but only to some extent.
Being in control and knowing the details aren’t the same. Yes, leaders ought to invest time and effort in being prepared, otherwise they are unprofessional. Being in control allows us to feel safe. We trust in our abilities, experience and knowledge. But this self-reliance and need for control become an obstacle when you are required to adjust to uncertainty. Most Popular In: Entrepreneurs
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To perform well, leaders need to be prepared to not always be prepared.
There is a Yiddish phrase: “Man plans and God laughs.” This phrase doesn’t give us permission not to plan but rather reinforces our understanding that things outside of our control will happen and we can’t freeze or panic when plans go wrong. As Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, and former General of the Army said, “in preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
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Alon Shalit, a former IDF (Israel Defense Force) officer and organizational psychologist, trains business leaders to walk in the dark, just like soldiers are required to often do. Both literally and metaphorically.
When there isn’t enough time to come prepared or there isn’t enough data available to satisfy us, we stall and miss opportunities. A need for control prevents us from making courageous decisions, such as letting someone fail or moving quickly forward in the face of uncertainty or imperfect data. Companies led by people who demand control feel slow because risks are avoided, including the implementation of new methods and initiatives that might drive growth.
And when the head of a team dives too deep into the details, it limits the team’s autonomy to make decisions. This micromanaging has two negative consequences: First, decision-making is slow since people are afraid to make decisions on their own. They wait for guidance and correction.
Second, employees don’t learn from their mistakes and failures, which slows improvement over time. As a business leader, if you are overly preoccupied with the details, your perspective narrows and you miss the bigger picture. There will always be surprises and there is a difference between knowing the details and being rigid about them. If you don’t relinquish control, no one else can move things forward.
Being vs. doing
There are two basic psychological modes: ‘doing’ and ‘being.’ Most leaders are doers: they get things done; they push forward; they solve problems. However, when a dramatic change is in need, the doer may turn into a bottleneck and, paradoxically, hinder progress by insisting on being fully active and involved in every step along the way. Does this sound like anyone you know or have worked with?
When there is uncertainty or ambiguity, oftentimes the most obvious response is to “do something, anything,” but this could be counter-productive. That’s when the transition from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ will be more effective. As opposed to ‘doing’, ‘being’ is a psychological state of staying in the moment or living in the present, without any immediate action. It provides space to think and feel at a deeper level, and allows for trial and error in a fluctuating environment that may generate negative consequences or new rules and assumptions.
The ‘being’ mode should not be confused with being cautious. These are two different states of mind. Oftentimes, when there is significant uncertainty, what holds leaders back is a sense of caution. We usually look for leaders who are reliable, calculated and accountable – not erratic, impulsive or thrill seeking. But there is a fine balance. Organizations need leaders who are able to make the best decisions with the information they have at hand and to move on, even if that information is imperfect or lacking. Leaders have to aim for the sky while also being prudent, reflective and keeping close enough to the ground.
This brings Nassim Taleb’s concept of ‘antifragile’ to mind. Namely that the opposite of being fragile (breaking easily on impact) is not robustness or resilience (immune to impact), but rather it is ‘anti-fragile’ (becoming stronger through impact). Disorder, and not avoiding disorder, makes us stronger, just as an adaptive threat is the heart of the evolutionary principle of successful adaptation. Leaning into ambiguity will make you a stronger, more effective leader.