Leading with uncertainty

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ~ Thomas A. Edison

I’m getting more than a little concerned about the world’s changing attitude toward ‘risk’.

src: stuartduncan.name

A fundamental part of our biological makeup, and a reason for the way our limbic systems work the way they do, is that we are well equipped for surviving. The very fact we are around today, writing and reading this post, is evidence of our species’ success in navigating millenia of ‘survival’ challenges. Being able to assess risk, and make decisions based on the available information, is key to that continued success. Certainty and absolute prediction do not exist in nature. The best we can do today is build up banks of data based on past events, use super-computers to model trends, and use experts to ‘predict’ based on probabilities. And, even then, it is remarkably difficult to get it right. The US Presidential elections were being predicted by political analysts and pollsters using many different indicators of what has happened (or not happened) in the past. But, they did not all get it right. Hurricane Sandy was being tracked minute by minute, modelled by the most powerful computers, and its likely course predicted by the best weather forecasters, but no-one could be certain exactly where, and how it would strike, and with what level of ferocity.

Now, I like to think that, as humans (who are inherently wired to understand probability, risk and prediction), we are tolerant and acceptant of the fact that getting predictions absolutely correct is simply not achievable.  But, I fear I am naive in this belief. I sense a growing intolerance of lack of predictability. “Those so-called ‘experts’ are paid good money, so they darn well should get it right!”  This typical refrain suggests that we may be losing our biological and innate capacity to be effective risk assessing organisms, too keen perhaps  to devolve responsibility for ‘getting things wrong’ to others.This worrying development was highlighted recently by the astonishing imprisonment of 6 scientists who were pilloried for failing to predict the occurrence of an earthquake that struck the town of L’Aquila in Italy. Hundreds died in the disaster. The case was generally badly reported in the mainstream press, so you might want to have a look at this blog post for more detail of what appears to have happened, behind the scenes, and in the lead up to the earthquake.What was seriously lacking in the whole sorry affair was straightforward and honest leadership.  The Abruzzo region of Italy, in which L’Aquila lies, has been subject to numerous shocks and tremors over many years (several thousand since late 2008). People in the region are no doubt familiar with living with this reality, and, of course, the constant threat of the ‘the big one’.

src: jetlaw.org

The officials in L’Aquila used the words of the scientists, which did of course say that there was nothing to suggest a ‘big one’ was imminent, to go further and minimise the concerns. One of the scientist’s minuted statements said “It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded.”  The conditions were translated by one of the government officials on Italian TV as “certainly normal” (which) posed “no danger”.  When the earthquake struck 6 days later, the government officials stepped aside to avoid the bullets, leaving the scientists firmly in everyone’s sights.  Political survival rather than leadership, ownership and responsibility became top priority.

Faced with a situation where people are fearful of something happening, especially one that is out of their own control, calls for courageous and honest leadership. For an excellent argument on this subject I recommend Ronald Heifetz’s, Leadership Without Easy Answers.

1. Listen to people’s concerns and find out where they are at.  Suppressing issues, or engaging in a game of “everything will be alright” does no-one any good. It simply encourages a parent-child relationship which will come back to bite when things go wrong.  This may buy officials in government (or managers in business) time, and while things do not get worse, people may feel comforted by the words. It does nothing however to help people prepare themselves and make their own decisions, and as such is actually doing them a massive disservice.

2. Acknowledge the fear.  Dismissing the fears, and brushing them away is not good leadership.  Good leaders show empathy, but ultimately ensure that people understand that they have choices. They can choose to live with the fear, or, if it is possible to do so, they can change their circumstances, either to move elsewhere, or make preparations to best deal with events that may happen. Either way, good leadership puts at least some of the work back onto people.

3. Orchestrate conflicting perspectives.  A key component of a successful leader’s approach is to bring different perspectives and views together in a way that encourages balance, reason and arbitration.  Done well, this will encourage people to take responsibility for weighing up available information to reach their own conclusions.  What happened in L’Aquila was underhand and patronising, and certainly not good leadership. The authorities in this case ‘used’ expert evidence to manipulate the message, and suppress discussion and ownership.

Of course, all of this will no doubt involve leaders in facing up to some hard truths, and  lead to them making some tough decisions and prioritisations. But, no one said leading was easy. However, it is important that the leading process involves people in understanding the role they have to play too. If none of the work is returned to the people, if they do not feel ownership and responsibility, then the leader has not done their job, is unlikely to succeed and will no doubt be ejected and replaced at the earliest sign of failure.

Leaders must not go on encouraging society to expect greater and greater certainty and predictability in a notoriously unpredictable world.  It is misleading, disingenuous and damaging our ability to solve problems.

src: brandingstrategyinsider.com

In today’s world, with so many social, economic and ecological challenges, we need people throughout our societies (in businesses, organisations and academia) who appreciate risk, who are prepared to take chances based on the known risks, and who are not scared to fail or get things wrong. The greatest scientific discoveries and creative breakthroughs have come about from people trying, failing, refining and retrying. It is incumbent on us all, but especially on those with the privilege to hold leadership positions, to encourage a culture where it is acceptable to try and fail. To reward attempts at innovation and creativity by everyone (not just people paid to work in research labs). And finally, to foster a balanced, and ultimately, more natural acceptance of the existence of risk and lack of certainty in our world.

[ For more on this subject you might also enjoy a previous post I wrote Are you a popular Leader? Then what are you doing wrong? ]

If you want to maximise your effectiveness as a leader or develop the leadership skills of your people, then please do get in touch. Simply send your details through the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to discuss further with you how we can work together.


7 thoughts on “Leading with uncertainty

  1. We have to have courageous confidence to lead through the risks and challenges. One can never be prepared for every situation or circumstance. But, life’s experiences provide us building blocks to develop many of the core values and qualities that lead to success that are necessary to function, grow and survive. Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch said, during the World War One first Battle of the Marne, “Hard pressed on my right. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I am attacking.” His courageous confidence, through the adversity he and his French Ninth Army was facing, carried them through to victory. We have to lead our people through the uncertainty to what we know is possible and what our people are capable of accomplishing. We, as leaders, must have faith, as well as courage and confidence.

  2. Louis ~ another thoughtful and thought provoking article, which I really enjoyed. It left me reflecting on both how we, as humans, are wired for risk assessment – another great revelation on the chimpanzee brain function is described by Dr Steve Peters in his book, the ‘Chimp Paradox’ – and the way, certainly from my lengthy experience in public services, our received wisdom these days generally prescribes our thinking through health and safety rules and regulations, codes of conduct, safeguarding protocols and the like!

    This is not to say that these are unnecessary … but I do question, at times, the rigidity with which they are applied. It is almost as if it is believed that you can mitigate every risk that might befall an individual or group. Clearly, this is not the case, especially when working with people – children, young people and families – as, in reality, these can be the most fragile, volatile and unstable of situations. This is not to mention occasional aberrations on the part of staff too!

    So a huge challenge is presented for leaders in the modern day. I think leaders in this modern day should be agile, flexible and adaptable. They should show clear purpose; display openness, authenticity, and courage; and demonstrate confidence! I therefore like the work of Heifetz, whilst I’d also cite building strong emotional intelligence, along the lines espoused by Daniel Goleman.

    I’d also suggest to readers that, if they wish to look for an alternative model that addresses the risk averseness of modern management, particularly in the public sector, then they need look no further than my friend Phil Johnson’s work ~ Master of Business Leadership.

    • Thanks again John. I agree. All of the great advances we have made in health & safety, codes of conduct, regulation and so on, were hard fought for and important in our advancement as a ‘civilized’ society. They should be there to enable us to work more effectively and more ethically. When the pendulum swings too far, and they become more important than whatever our initial purpose was, then we know we are in trouble. How do we know when we are approaching the right balance and how do we maintain it when we are there?

  3. Great article Louis – and a subject close to my heart. My kids are not allowed to take the risks that I did when I was their age and I too am concerned that we are developing a generation of risk adverse people who lock up Italian scientists!
    On a practical note – it is easy to exhort our leaders to be courageous and resolute – but why would they do that when the price of failure is so high?
    Have you come across the work of Wilfred Bion on group dynamics? – He explores what is going on at an unconscious level in groups and his theories are very relevant to what I think is happening in societies all over the world. Heifetz’s ideas seem to be focused on bringing the unconscious and unsaid into awareness – which is a very good way of dealing with the unconscious behaviours described by Bion.

    • Many thanks Charlie. I appreciate your kind and positive comments. I have heard of Bion but I would not say I am familiar with his work. I will seek him out and learn a bit more about what he had to say on this. Thanks for the steer. I love this way of learning – so rich and varied. With so much knowledge out there in everyone’s heads, it’s great to hear each other’s perspectives on topics.

  4. Pingback: Five Blogs – 13 November 2012 « 5blogs

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