The Uncertain Leader
Uncertainty is a permanent part of the leadership landscape. It never goes away. Uncertainty is not an indication of poor leadership; it underscores the need for leadership. It is the environment in which good leadership is most easily identified.
Where there is no uncertainty, there is no longer the need for leadership. As Jim Kouzes puts it, "Uncertainty creates the necessary condition for leadership."
It took me several years to figure this out. As a young leader I was tormented by the assumption that I should know what to do in every situation. If I were a good leader, I would reason, I would know exactly what to do. After all, I am the leader! Leaders are supposed to be able to stand up at any given moment and give direction with absolute certainty. Or so I thought.
Time and experience have taught me differently. There will be very few occasions when you are absolutely certain about anything. You will consistently be called upon to make decisions with limited information. That being the case, your goal should not be to eliminate uncertainty. Instead, you must develop the art of being clear in the face of uncertainty. The art of clarity involves giving explicit and precise direction in spite of limited information and unpredictable outcomes.
Imagine that you are coaching a football team. It is fourth and eight. You are six points behind and five minutes remain on the clock. What do you do? Kick or go for it?
With limited information and facing an unpredictable outcome, you do what every coach in that situation does: you draw upon your knowledge and intuition and you call a play. You don't shrug your shoulders and say, "We don't have enough information." You make a decision and send everybody into formation with specific instructions. And when the ball is snapped you find out whether or not you made the right decision.
That kind of clarity requires both confidence and humility. Confidence to move boldly in the direction you have determined. Humility to acknowledge that at best you are making an educated guess.
In the realm of sports we see no conflict between uncertainty and clarity. We are accustomed to coaches, captains, and catchers giving clear signals in the midst of uncertainty. We have seen the chaos that ensues on the playing field when a signal isn't clear. But in the worlds of business, politics, and ministry, uncertainty makes us uneasy. We hesitate. We become less specific and more general in our directives. Our people are unsure of what we expect. We yell "hike" and people run in whatever direction they feel is best.
If you're not careful, uncertainty will sand the edges off your clarity. The result will be chaos.
Leadership is all about taking people on a journey. The challenge is that most of the time, we are asking people to follow us to places we ourselves have never been. There aren't any photographs—we are left with word pictures, metaphors, and illustrations. There are no maps to guide us—we are left to cut a trail. Yet as we move forward ...