Real Leaders

How I Conquer the Illusion of Uncertainty

If you walk into a dark room, you’ll naturally slow down and proceed very cautiously. If at all. Our brains are wired for certainty, to look for patterns and assurance that our next step will land just as we want. When certainty is removed, obscuring the path ahead, our default response is to put on the brakes and seek safety until the fog clears. 

All well and good. Except that if you’re reading this website, you likely have a passion for leading change – in your business, organization, or the world at large. In which case, succumbing to fear and hyper-caution amid uncertainty is not an option. This isn’t promoting recklessness. Instead, it recognizes that while ‘playing it safe’ provides a short-term illusion of security, it can ultimately land you in a far more precarious position than decisive, forward-leaning action.  

Shakespeare said that ‘Fortune favors the bold.’ Never is this truer than when fear runs high, rendering many frozen in overwhelm, paralyzed by their own catastrophizing. It’s why a common rule of battle is that when under mortar fire, the direction one runs holds less risk than standing still waiting for the dust to settle.    

The first task of leadership is not to set a strategy or manage the process. It’s to manage one’s mindset. When the ground underneath is continually shifting, we must learn to be grounded in ourselves – in ‘self-certainty’ – anchored to our core values, of who we want to be as a leader. This does not imply immunity to fear. Instead, it means we don’t give it the power to highjack higher-order thinking. Left unchecked, it easily does, driving clever, creative people to focus on potential losses and discount the cost of cautious inaction. 

Leading through change requires rising above instinct, adopting an offensive’ play to win’ mindset over a defensive ‘play not to lose’ mindset. The latter stymies ingenuity, directing all resources solely into protecting the status quo. The former, however, unleashes the creative and bold thinking that fear closes down. Neuro-research has shown that working toward a compelling ‘invented future’ elevates our perspective to see opportunities others miss and expands our capacity – individually and collectively – to seize them. 

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is known for making commercial decisions based on 70% of available information. This near guarantees that his decisions will not be 100% right and will require ongoing iteration and sometimes 180-degree pivots. Yet by not waiting until he’s sure to land the ideal outcome, Amazon has disrupted old paradigms and forged new ground at a pace that leaves most in their wake. 

Summoning the courage to act decisively despite the ambiguity lies at the heart of real leadership. One way to tap this courage is to consult your’ future self’; to step into the shoes of you five years from now, looking back on this time. Ask your future-self:

Where are you being called to step up and make a change or take a chance?

What new ‘invented future’ would you pursue if you trusted yourself, not your doubts? What lays at stake if you don’t? 

Courage or cowardice? 

The desire for security and comfort will always be in a tug of war with the desire for growth and service. This is why real leaders must continually reconnect to their deepest values and highest intentions lest the self-protecting pull of lower-order intentions wins out, driving short-sighted decisions and over-cautious actions.  

Every significant crisis throughout history – depressions, wars, pandemics – has been followed by a rebound of the human spirit and an intellectual, social, and cultural blossoming. Yet reaping the opportunities that emerge from disruption does not go to organizations whose leaders are mired in indecision and unable to see beyond the immediate horizon. 

Addressing our biggest challenges will require leaders to embrace the discomfort of uncertainty, challenge their own best thinking, and take courageous action toward a future that lays beyond that horizon. Not just annually or quarterly, but daily. After all, our psychological immune systems can justify an excess of courage far easier than an excess of cowardice. 

Now is not the time to wait for certainty. It is, after all, an illusion. Instead, it’s the time to reframe uncertainty into possibility, to reimagine the future, and to recommit to transforming this crisis into a catalyst for good of the highest order – to do business better and harness the diversity among us to create a more equitable, sustainable and compassionate world. /

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