Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. – Dorothy
If Dorothy never heard about the yellow brick road, would she ever have been whisked back to Kansas? Would the tin man have found his heart? The lion his courage? The straw man his brain?
The yellow brick road is a powerful metaphor connecting to something deep in the human psyche. It represents hope, direction, and purpose. Yet it also symbolizes a singular promise: follow the yellow brick road, and your dreams will come true.
Transferring these sentiments from a fantasy world to today’s world is as simple as it is complex. Most people rarely openly entertain these kinds of questions, while privately, they harbor feelings of doubt and confusion.The gap between public proclamations and private thoughts is often so great that many people learn to ignore uncertainty altogether. As one person put it, “Around here, you’ve got to know all the answers. And even if you don’t, you learn to act like you do.” In short: certainty prevails, doubt does not.
Our culture tells leaders that they “have to know with absolute certainty.” And it conveys to them in hundreds of ways, both large and small, that uncertainty is bad:
- Leaders are often ridiculed if they don’t provide specific promises to deal with every conceivable problem.
- Financial analysts require executives to project next year’s earnings. Woe to the company that misses the prediction because of unknown forces.
- In today’s’ unprecedented times with COVID-19, there are endless debates: What caused it? Did we act quickly enough? When will we be able to return to normal life? What will normal look like? When will the economy fully recover?
The answers to these questions are uncertain; they’re all subject to speculation and opinion. Yet, often leaders are judged by their ability to provide accurate answers to unknowable questions.
Our approach is decidedly different from the prevailing paradigm. Our core premise is that it is better to embrace uncertainty rather than seek to eliminate it. Typically, when people first encounter uncertainty, they try to drive it out. Eventually many people learn to tolerate, and perhaps cope with uncertainty. Some even learn to accept uncertainty as an inevitable force to overcome. We want to encourage leaders and people to aspire to something greater — to embrace uncertainty. Why?
We believe it is far better to plan and execute on the best available options that maximize the chances for positive outcomes instead of expending energy asking questions and requiring answers for things that are unknowable. And these actions are rarely one dimensional. The best outcomes result from approaching problems on multiple fronts, addressing all of the issues we know at the time. And also, be constantly open to new information. Seldom is there a “yellow brick road.”
Embracing uncertainty requires a fresh thought process and new behaviors, both on a personal and organizational level. We suggest the following:
- Accept that there are questions that don’t have answers and issues that are unknowable. There is much more uncertainty in the world than ever gets acknowledged. Instead of wasting time and energy fretting over things that can’t be known, devote time and energy to deal with things you can impact.
- Transparently communicate about the knowns and unknowns. This includes acknowledging that your current plans for managing the uncertainty may not bear fruit. If you don’t know, say so. If you have a point-of-view, say so — respectfully. Don’t try to create the aura of certainty where none exists.
- Praise the historical power of resiliency. Reminding people of classic comebacks – for example, the United States after the Great Depression — has a way of framing challenges in terms of resiliency, rather than on immediate results. Tales of how obstacles have been overcome build employees’ personal confidence that they can get through the most demanding situations.
- Spin complex and uncertain issues 360 degrees around, by trying to see them from all angles. Realize that the solutions to complex problems are rarely one dimensional; rather, viewing an issue from many sides ensures better outcomes. For example, in shaping a response to a COVID virus, an executive team might consider questions such as, “What are the physical, emotional, financial and social implications for our team members?” “How will the virus affect our suppliers? Customers? Family members?” “How could our expertise serve the national interest in innovative ways?” “How can we provide a sense of purpose and civic duty during this time?”
- Trust that people, for the most part, have the organization’s best interests in mind. Leaders often have to dig deep into their reservoir of faith in others during uncertain times. Thoughtful leaders will hear conflicting advice from others and push-back against their own ideas. This can be challenging, and leaders might be skeptical. Yet, resilient leaders need the support of their team to robustly respond to the inevitable setbacks and move the organization forward. Plus, leaders will need to rely on other opinion leaders to translate their vision and perspective to other people beyond the leaders’ immediate influence.
Goodbye yellow brick road!
Robert J. DeKoch, President, The Boldt Company
Phillip G. Clampitt PhD, Blair Professor of Communication, University of Wisconsin – Green Bay
They are the authors of Embracing Uncertainty: The Essence of Leadership and Transforming Leaders into Progress Makers: Leadership for the 21st Century