Successful Leaders Embrace Ambiguity

Decisiveness under pressure requires high-ambiguity tolerance. When people tolerate, or even appreciate ambiguity, they demonstrate the ability to synthesize. As we recall from our chemistry classes, synthesis is the production of a substance from simpler materials after a chemical reaction. In high-stakes situations, leaders need to serve as the catalyst for the chemical reaction.

In the book, Landing in the Executive Chair, I introduced the term F2 Leader to describe those leaders who balance fairness and firmness and model effective leadership during most situations. However, not all F2 Leaders have what it takes to make the tough calls that strategic decisions require. Ambiguity often surfaces and haunts leaders from the moment they decide to make a high-stakes decision until the ink dries on the contracts and beyond. Here’s are the ways leaders typically approach risk:

Decisive leaders who have little tolerance for ambiguity aggregate data. That is, they can make decisions based on loosely associated fragments of information, but they can’t really fuse the facts in a way that helps them make sense of uncertain outcomes. Aggregation works under ordinary circumstances, but most leaders find very little about major change initiatives ordinary.

The analyst doesn’t fare so well in a rapidly changing environment. Their tendency toward indecision, coupled with their intolerance of ambiguity, often explains why their attempts at innovation fail. Speed of decision-making becomes more important in high-stakes situations.

Theorists, those who enjoy an element of ambiguity but who find decision-making daunting, won’t do much better. Given enough time, they can make the right call, but once again, opportunities appear and disappear, quickly.

Dealing with ambiguity and risk-taking do not come easily for all leaders—even really smart, experienced ones. Those who want to increase their tolerance for ambiguity can do these:

1. Repeat a “success, not perfection” mantra.

The first step to leading through ambiguity involves realizing perfectionism is the enemy of success. Many of my clients find letting go of their perfectionistic tendencies difficult, though. After all, they grew up seeing perfectionism as a positive trait. They had a keen eye for the details, and not everyone else did.

All along others rewarded them for their accuracy and precision. In senior leadership positions, however, they often realize they have over used an asset to the point that it has become a liability. They get bogged down in the decision-making process and mired in the details. This causes them to lack original and innovative thinking and to appear rigid or dogmatic in exercising control.

When they learn to balance thinking things through with moving ideas to action, they soon realize they don’t need 100% accuracy; usually 80% will suffice. The time and money required for reaching 100% won’t compensate for any added benefits. When they change this one behavior, they more quickly seize opportunities that their competitors let slip through their fingers.

2. Clearly define the problem, challenge, or opportunity.

Solving problems and making decisions starts with getting a firm handle on what the issue is. That involves clearly identifying the negative outcome and discovering the cause of it. But it also includes deconstructing success. Keep asking “why?” until you get to the core of the issue. Don’t jump to solutions or alternatives until and unless you have a clear understanding of the cause/effect relationships. Then, put it the issue in one sentence so that everyone can focus their attention on the same thing.

3. Visualize success.

Uncertain situations confuse us. They tend to create mental mazes that cause to see the future as a scary place where we fear we will fail. The more ambiguous the situation, the more likely we will be to catastrophize outcomes. We don’t have to do that, however. We can choose to visualize what success will look like, create measures for knowing when we have achieved it, and, most importantly, articulate the benefits for going forward.

4. Don’t expect to get decisions right the first time.

Dealing with ambiguity often means adjusting to uncertainty, a tolerance for errors, and an ability not to take criticism personally. Synthesizerspeople who make small, incremental decisions, get instant feedback, and move forward a little more until they can address the bigger issue—don’t expect to get things right on the first try. Research tells us that on the second or third try people better understand challenges and opportunities. They start small, so they can recover quickly and adjust to criticism slowly.

5. Don’t choose quick fixes over goal accomplishment

As much as I champion speed in decision-making, I don’t advocate settling for the wrong decision. Too often, in a crisis, leaders want to reduce pain for themselves and others, so they opt for the quick fix—or worse, the workaround. These actions may look decisive and courageous, but without good judgment, they can be reckless. Honing good judgment involves keeping the long-term consequences for every major decision in view. Leaders who do this eventually enjoy more success.

6. Pursue success, not harmony.

Most people want to be liked. But leaders don’t get paid to be liked. They get paid for results. When they don’t hold people accountable, or when they fail to make the tough calls, they give people reason not to respect them, which usually makes these same people not like them.

People who over value popularity frequently also gloss over conflict. They shy away from debate, even though forcing themselves to debate the crucial components of the decision so often leads to better decisions. When leaders make good hiring decisions and then fail to listen to those smart people, disagree with them, and encourage them to differ with each other, they metaphorically leave smarts on the table—along with the money that better decisions would have engendered. Effective leaders not only encourage problem-solving; they invite others to take an opposing view when facing a high-stakes call.

7. Focus on results, not process.

Too often leaders become ego-involved with their tactics, defending them, even when a mountain of data suggests they don’t work anymore. Usually, this kind of wrong-minded focus causes a setback.

8. Set priorities.

Effectively setting priorities involves zeroing in on the mission-critical few issues and putting aside the trivial many. Don’t allow yourself or others to be distracted by inconsequential data, emotional reactions, or hidden agendas. Constantly keep both the goal and a global perspective in mind, or you’ll be tempted to veer off course, especially when unpleasant surprises surface.

9. Get your foot off third if you want to steal home.

Baseball players understand the importance of valuing ambiguity. They know they must make a quick decision to leave the safety of the base they’re on to score the run. For a time, they suffer both the excitement and the uncertainty about whether they will emerge from this play as a hero or a villain.

Baseball players aren’t alone on the field, however. They can rely on the third-base coach to help them make the decision to run or stay, and business leaders need to do the same. They need to build a network of advisers who can act as sounding-boards for ideas, especially risky ones. Too few leaders take the time to establish relationships with these advisers before a high-risk situation, however. Consequently, they create a pattern of remaining safely on third when they could be stealing home and winning the game.

10. Educate yourself.

The more knowledge you have, the more education you pursue, and the more you explore new, uncarted seas, the more comfortable you’ll get with ambiguity. Realize you’ll always feel most confident when you’re the smartest person in the room, but also know that if you surround yourself with smarter people, you’ll learn more. Hire strategic thinkers who truly enjoy innovation. Then, get out of their way.

Overly cautious decisions or a refusal to make decisions take the individual and the organization down the wrong paths. These paths won’t always be roads to perdition, but leaders who stay on them too often or too much find they have ended up where they never intended to go. In high-stakes environments, ambiguity can be your friend.


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