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Managing Uncertainty with Confidence

A Leader's Greatest Challenge

By Kathleen Quinn Votaw

Recently, a friend gave me a gift that included this tantalizing quote from clergyman Robert Schuller: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you would not fail?” Definitely a question to spark the imagination. After rethinking every single aspect of my life, the question took me to leadership, because I believe that uncertainty is the biggest challenge facing leaders today.

How do you charge into the future with the kind of drive and passion that motivates others to follow when you have no sense for what that future might hold? It’s one thing to lead with the confidence of knowing, which was possible in the past. It’s quite another to lead with confidence when you’re pretty much blindfolded, as we are in the thick of today’s continuous change.

Authors Phil Hodgson and Randall White ask, “What are leaders for if not to manage uncertainty?” Their answer is that meeting the challenge of uncertainty requires leaders to have the courage to overcome a fear of failure. They point out that leaders used to have the security of knowing that there was a “right” and a “wrong” way to do many things—standard, single-best approaches and solutions that applied to a variety of situations. That knowledge developed effective leaders who were expert and in control. These leaders had a clear vision for their organizations to follow.

“And now?” say Hodgson and White, “Uncertainty has a habit of creeping into every kind of circumstance.” Today, leaders often don’t know what needs to be done, much less how to go about doing it. They go on to say that leaders who promote learning head toward the things they know the least about—the areas that are filled with uncertainty and ambiguity. Because organizations lack a clear and constant vision, both leaders and followers share in the uncertainty challenge.

Trying to manage uncertainty seems like an oxymoron and is stressful to even the most effective leaders. It requires the ability, and the courage, to think and behave out of the box. Here are some suggestions on how to develop that kind of confidence:

  • Lead with integrity and compassion; integrity because it helps you do the right thing and compassion because you cannot always see the crosses your people are bearing.
  • Stay actively involved in the hiring process, surrounding yourself with people who have the skills, character and personality to get the job done. The people you hire can make or break you and you need to be able to trust them.
  • Focus on what’s next and delegate the day-to-day to the trustworthy people you’ve taken the time to hire.
  • Communicate clearly and often. It is more important than ever, even if you are simply communicating that you don’t yet know what to do.
  • Replace your fear of failure with curiosity, like you did when you were a child.
  • Take risks, learn from them, and “fail forward.”
  • Don’t ever get too comfortable, or let your people get too comfortable.
  • Embrace your lack of knowledge and leap into learning at every opportunity.
  • Admit the challenges of managing uncertainly—that gives permission to others to do the same—and create strategies accordingly.
  • Find an amazing, but small, group of individuals to serve as your mentors, people who enrich your life with learning and support.
  • Find time to be at peace with yourself and with life. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings so that you can be at your best with the people who count on you for leadership.

The reality is that if you are a leader today, you are leading change. Don’t occupy your mind with the past, eagerly jump into the future. Know that you won’t always have the answers, but that you are surrounded by the people and resources to figure them out. That should give you the confidence you need to succeed, in perhaps some surprising ways.

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