leading through uncertainty

If there was ever any doubt about the importance of a leader’s ability to navigate change, uncertainty, and disruption, the emergence of the global pandemic in 2020 made this necessity abundantly clear. And while we all hope to avoid future pandemics, one thing is certain — we cannot avoid ever-increasing complexity.

The leaders we work with often report feeling stuck, ill-equipped, or overwhelmed as they face the growing challenges of their roles. Understandably, it’s easy to feel this way when the complexity of our world has surpassed our “complexity of mind,” as Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey describe in their book, Immunity to Change. To put this in concrete terms, computing power has increased more than a trillion-fold since the mid 1950’s, but our brains remain unchanged.

In order to effectively lead others in increasing complexity, leaders must first learn to lead themselves. Although each leader faces their own unique circumstances, we have observed six strategies that accelerate your ability to continually learn, evolve, and navigate progressively more complex challenges.

Embrace the Discomfort of Not Knowing

Throughout our careers, we are conditioned to come up with the answer — as in a single, definitive, correct answer. Given that our brains are hardwired to see uncertainty as a risk or threat, it’s physiologically normal to feel stress when faced with unfamiliar situations. This is especially true for high achievers who have built their career on knowing or finding the “right” answer. Although avoiding these unpleasant feelings is a natural human tendency, it can become a significant barrier to learning, future growth, and ultimately performance.

Rather than avoid these feelings, we must learn to acknowledge and embrace the discomfort as an expected and normal part of the learning process. As described by Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, leaders must shift from a “know it all” to “learn it all” mindset. This shift in mindset can, itself, help ease the discomfort by taking the pressure off of you to have all the answers.

Distinguish Between Complicated and Complex

Most of us use the terms complex and complicated interchangeably when, in fact, they represent critically different circumstances. For example, tax law is complicated, meaning it is highly technical in nature and difficult to understand, but you can break the problem down into discreet parts, consult with an expert (or several), and generally find a solution.

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by Rebecca Zucker and Darin Rowell, Harvard Business Review

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