I’ve noticed lately that two, high-level, leadership capabilities are in big demand:
- An ability to accept uncertainty as the norm.
- A demonstrated comfort with ambiguity.
If these two aspects of leadership are challenging for you, know you’re not alone. Most of us crave certainty, and while we might not be good at it now, we can see how becoming comfortable with ambiguity can be a worthwhile pursuit.
A path to developing these skills begins with understanding what uncertainty and ambiguity really are.
While the terms are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings. Both strike a chord at the heart of humanness – our desire to know the future, or for some of us, to control something or someone.
Uncertainty means “not known beyond doubt,” or “not having certain knowledge.” None of us can perfectly predict the future.
Ambiguity means “different matters are understood by different people in different ways.” We can mean one thing, and someone can take our intent for something completely different.
The best we can do as leaders is make decisions to influence outcomes and shape circumstances. Then, as time passes, we must trust that however things play out, we’ll have the judgment to make even better choices as we get new information. In our unpredictable world and lives, it’s helpful for us to focus on the choices we make, the actions we take, and the contributions we can provide. What’s certain is small, what we can influence is significant.
Building comfort with ambiguity means recognizing that words, ideas, actions, and directions can be understood in two or more possible ways. Leaders who are comfortable with ambiguity seek to communicate with clarity yet realize they can never control how others interpret their words or efforts. When we don’t know, we can ask. When we don’t understand, we can put effort into finding clarity. What we often miss though is being able to totally know how others perceive us. While we can never know fully how our leadership is making a difference, I coach leaders to be accountable to having intentions that align with their values to give their actions the best chance of being received well.
Instead of chasing the affirmations of others, focus on being of value and of service. If you consistently step up to help, listen to understand, and try to decipher uncertainty for the teams you are a part of, not only will you get better at accepting the vast amount of uncertainty we all face, but you’ll also become comfortable in dealing with, or letting go of, what can’t be known. That’s high-level leadership in action.