The Call of “Not Knowing”– How Uncertainty is Still the Test of Leadership

Guest post by
Randall P. White

leaders are rising to the occasion.

You just have to look a little deeper. There have been great examples of
leadership in our multiple crises of the moment.

governors, even some sheriffs and police officers, are showing how it’s done.
People who are otherwise obscure on the national scene are now showing up in
news feeds and quenching a yearning for sanity, direction and confidence.

Such as? Mayor Keisha
Lance Bottoms of Atlanta relating to us as a parent and an executive, saying
enough is enough and here are things we’re doing about it. Sheriff Chris
Swanson in Michigan who “protected and served” protesters, by joining their
march. Dr. Anthony Fauci laying out both what he knows and what he doesn’t
know. Even without a definitive answer, we know he has a process based on data
and rationality with a goal of public safety and avoiding death.

In all of this,
it’s not about being a better person. It’s about knowing how to be a conduit
for solutions—and creating a safe space to listen to ideas and try the best
one’s out—searching for viable solutions in an uncertain world.

leadership is a crucible and it’s natural for us to be inspired by what it can

We are seeing
that leadership is a calling and it’s often more geeky than macho and certainly
not authoritarian. Well-developed leaders are piqued by “not knowing” and
motivated by the challenge to find out. They enjoy learning and they don’t mind
mistakes as long as the mistakes are the kind where we learn and grow and
ultimately leapfrog us forward to a viable solution.

Then there are
leaders who really are geeks: Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk. They’re
lucky to have more of a sandbox than a crucible. Gates, Dorsey and Musk are
like brainy action figures of leadership. Fascinating and fun to watch. Who
doesn’t like seeing a reusable rocket back its way down to a landing pad for
the first time?

Yet, Bottoms, Fauci
and Swanson are a little more compelling right now, by being less preordained.
Not nationally known. Less expected. And more attainable examples of leaders.
Each rose to the occasion. Each has to rally followership—but they are
believable and approachable and so, they are relatable in how they approach
seemingly impossible situations in an ever-increasing complex environment of
crisis atop crisis.

Real leaders,
regardless how they come packaged–gender, ethnicity, nationality– aren’t afraid
of what they don’t know. They run toward the danger and the unknown so that
their people are energized to solve important problems, whether it’s racism in a
police department or landing a first stage rocket on a stationary platform at
sea. Each is very difficult.

They’re the
people who come forward in a crisis that grab our imagination, like Churchill
or Franklin Delano Roosevelt rose to their wholly unknown occasions during
World War II.

In contrast to
the current president they are not caught up in themselves. They show up for
the followers, knowing that they have a calling to represent the best of the
followers and to help them be successful by creating a space where they can try
their best to solve the problems at hand.

So we see in our tumult that leaders are okay with being uncertain. That’s what
they signed on for. Leadership has always been about bringing people through
“not knowing.”

Not knowing we’d
be where we ended up six months later, I wrote a new chapter to
Relax, It’s Only Uncertainty in
September thinking it was time to re-release the title, after 19 years.

My now-retired colleague Philip Hodgson and I authored Relax as a field guide for leadership–the culmination of a decade
studying how people manage ambiguity and its attendant uncertainty. This work
also resulted in The Ambiguity Architect, a 360 to assess a person’s ability to
tolerate or master uncertainty. The instrument has consistently suggested that
high performers do well on this scale. And our experience suggests that dealing
with uncertainty successfully can be learned and improved.

The basic
lessons of
Relax, first published as
Y2K faded into the rear-view mirror, remain relevant and are taught in global
business schools’ leadership curriculum.

They’re also
demonstrated by our public sector rising stars.

With Covid-19 and mass civil disobedience we see leaders calling on traits like
“being motivated by mysteries,” future scanning, simplifying and enthusiasm (to
name half of the book’s eight Enablers for managing uncertainty).

We can observe
this in new leaders to the fore like Bottoms, Fauci, and Swanson. They break
complex, nuanced and sometimes abstract situations into simple statements we
all can share: citizens don’t trust authority, we can’t overwhelm our health
care system, and the chaos needs to stop for everyone. 

As a business professor, I have to ask how can business leaders learn as we
watch these ascending leaders in society? Chaos, ambiguity and uncertainty
bring opportunity for good leaders to not only emerge, but also invent new
solutions, new competitive advantages. And a better workplace, in which
learning is constant, inclusion is an advantage and imagination is allowed to

Randall P. White, PhD., is a social
psychologist, executive coach and managing partner of the Executive Development
Group. He is Co-head of Leadership at HEC Paris and author of
Relax, It’s Only Uncertainty.