Leading in Uncertain Times
Uncertainty is not a Threat: It is Creative and Powerful
My question is how organizations can lead us not toward some predictable goal, but toward a greater and greater capacity to handle unpredictability, and with it, a greater capacity to love and care about other people. ~Margaret Wheatley
Margaret Wheatley, one of the most prescient of systems thinkers and organization development writers, wrote this twenty years ago in her article, It Starts with Uncertainty. It is even more relevant and true today as uncertainty and unpredictability become a way of life. We are striving to make sense of a world that is spinning out of control. To thrive, i.e., to go beyond mere survival, desperation, fear, and helplessness, we need to foster and cultivate very different capacities in ourselves and in our organizations. I have been writing about developing these capacities in my previous articles: Facilitating Emergence and Sensemaking in Organizations, Reinventing Organizational Learning, and Six Enablers of Emergent Learning.
It is of paramount importance for organizations to build these core capacities to handle unpredictability and lean into ambiguity — to become platforms and containers for the future to manifest itself. Organizations and workplaces play an important role in our lives — and not just as a means to earn a monthly paycheck. I do believe that we infuse our lives with meaning when we do work that matters — where we contribute with our gifts from our higher Self, where our contributions are needed, and we are “paid” for it. I use “paid” in a broader and deeper sense beyond monetary payment, which is definitely important and must be fair. However, I also mean payment to mean a sense of fulfillment, the ability to achieve mastery, the opportunities to co-create meaningful outcomes with others, to be part of a community of passionate individuals, and to move toward a shared purpose. When work becomes this joyful, it becomes regenerative and healing.
Unfortunately, most organizations today are still operating from the old paradigms of command, control, planning, predicting, managing… The more volatile and complex the world becomes, the greater is the tendency to clamp down with more control. We are unable to let go and embrace uncertainty. But this is the fundamental leadership skill necessary to build thrivable, regenerative, meaningful organizations. And this can only happen when there is a paradigm shift — a shift from a mechanistic view of organizations to a living systems view. When we perceive our organizations as living systems, we cease to enforce control to bring about order. We begin to appreciate that, like any other living system, organizations also have inherent order, resilience, and congruence built into them. It is only when we disturb the natural flow of relationships, of meaning making, of genuine contribution and collaboration by creating artificial boxes and silos, that we create disharmony, dis-balance, and disorder.
When we view organizations through the lens of a complex, living, and adaptive system which — given the right conditions, nurturing, and stewardship — can transform itself and its ecosystem, we can invite people to a shared journey of moving toward an Evolutionary Purpose. This is vastly different from hustling people to meet pre-defined goals and quarterly targets. Moving toward an Evolutionary Purpose requires holding space for emergence, for the future to manifest itself through collective sensemaking. This needs a completely different kind of leadership. Yesterday’s models of leadership are no longer relevant. They uphold a figure who is aggressive, goal-driven, competitive, calculating, unemotional, wins the deal, amps revenue, manipulates people, and is stamped with all the “signs of material success”. Such leadership models and theories have sadly created generations of leaders disconnected from their essential humanity. Thus, we desperately need to reimagine and reinvent leadership to create joyful, regenerative organizations.
Today’s organizations need leaders who believe in human potential and goodness, who can inspire people to operate from their highest selves, who can instill in people a deep sense of their own worth. Otto Scharmer, in his book, Leading from the Emerging Future, distinguishes between what we do and how we do it, and the source or inner place from which we operate. It is this source that is the differentiator. As Bill O”Brien, the late CEO of Hanover Insurance said: “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” This is absolutely critical for leaders to understand and assimilate. They cannot transform their organizations unless they can transform the inner state from which they operate. In this context, Scharmer refers to:
“Presencing — a blended word combining sensing (feeling the future possibility) and presence (the state of being in the present moment). It means sensing and actualizing one’s highest future possibility — acting from the presence of what is wanting to emerge.”
The Age of Uncertainty calls for such leaders — leaders who practice Presencing. People can lean into and embrace unpredictability when leaders have unyielding belief in them. Such leaders become wayfinders and stewards of their organizations by holding space for everyone to contribute from their most authentic self. When they move from taking control to facilitating sensemaking and emergence, a space opens up for the future possibilities to manifest themselves. When people feel genuine inclusion, respect, and autonomy, and have a shared awareness of the whole system, they operate from their best selves. They cease to hold back, be defensive, be fearful, be competitive, be jealous or bitter, and all the other emotions that hold us back as well as the latent possibilities of an organization. With so much latent potential released and put forth in service of a higher purpose, an organization and its people cannot but thrive.
To embody Presencing, leaders need to have the courage, faith, and vision to slow down, step back, soften their gaze, and widen their perspectives. They have to develop their ability to see and listen beyond the obvious, beyond the immediate, and become pattern seekers. Move from reaction to responsiveness, from manipulation to communication, from influencing to creating impact. This requires a different set of skills and qualities:
Unyielding belief in human potential: Umair Haque, in a series of articles on leadership, writes about the qualities of a true leader of which this is one. I am in complete agreement with him that true leaders are those “who expand human potential to its very highest, so everyone can live a life that matters”. Organizations facing turmoil and uncertainty need such leaders who can inspire people to contribute from their highest future self. As we step deeper and deeper into an ever-changing and unpredictable world, we have no choice but to create conditions where everyone’s gifts can be brought together to solve the intractable challenges of our times. Organizations — as platforms that bring together, coordinate, and organize the efforts of many — are uniquely placed to have deep impact. When leaders have unyielding faith, they infuse the same throughout their organization. And an organization filled with people who believe in themselves can collectively achieve something extraordinary and incredible.
Valuing impact over influence: This too is inspired by Haque’s series of articles; and I have added my thoughts to it. Leadership models are all about influencing and persuading. A whole genre of books and training have evolved from this belief. However, as we are experiencing in all spheres of life — organizational, social, political, ecological — influencing and persuasion haven’t brought us to a happy place. As Otto Scharmer puts it, “we have collectively created results that no one wants.” Instead, organizations and leaders must focus on the impact they have — on their people, on the community, the ecosystem, the society, and the Planet. When leaders have the resilience, can embrace uncertainty with courage, and have faith in the capacity of their people, they will automatically enhance the well-being of all. And this is the impact leaders need to create today.
Understanding of Interbeing: I have borrowed Thich Nhat Hanh’s term to signify the importance of acknowledging and valuing the interconnectedness and interdependence of everything. When organizations and their leaders can truly appreciate this, they cannot make decisions that benefit a few and cause harm to many. Leaders with a deep sense of Interbeing pave the way for a regenerative culture. When leaders practice the principles of building a regenerative culture, competition gives way to collaboration, scarcity is replaced by a sense of abundance, purpose takes precedence over profit, and the feeling of separation is replaced by a sense of the whole. When leaders face uncertainty with a steadfast belief in Interbeing, they unlock the potential of the whole, and create space for the emergent future.
Staying with Uncertainty: While this has been the theme of this article, I have mentioned it separately because it is a skill that needs to be developed with rigor, attention, and awareness. Leaders have the propensity and are often expected to provide answers in times of great uncertainty and upheaval. Staying with uncertainty conversely requires leaders to strengthen their muscles for staying in the space between stories, suspending judgement, being ok with not having any answer, and tapping into one’s inner guidance till a response naturally surfaces. This also requires trust in the underlying coherence of the Universe, and belief that beneath the chaos lies a hidden order that is constantly propelling us — individuals and organizations alike — toward our next level of evolution.
Operating from an Open Mind, Open Heart, Open Will: I am simply paraphrasing Otto Scharmer here as he explains the U process where, as one journeys down the left side of the U, one learns to let of what holds us back — the Voice of Judgement, the Voice of Cynicism, and the Voice of Fear. As leaders deliberately and consciously practice this process, they create a container for generative conversations and deep listening — core leadership skills in times of complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity. By letting go of the old paradigms of Absencing and embracing Presencing, leaders shift the inner source from which they operate. And this has a transformative effect on the organization and its people.
Trusting in Emergence: Only when we trust in a coherent and emergent Universe can we wholeheartedly and fearlessly embrace uncertainty. This comes from letting go of the expert’s mindset, and becoming a learner. This willingness to dwell in the unknown creates the conditions for emergence. This is not a passive act of sitting back and waiting for something to happen. It is an active process of staying in the liminal space, listening deeply, engaging all our sensemaking capacities, and staying open to what wants to manifest. It is the capacity to see patterns and connect disparate dots. I believe, a very important leadership capacity for the VUCA world. Leaders who can lean into the emerging future are the ones who create magic in the face of chaos.
Do we realize we are working with people who have great reservoirs of goodness, commitment and creativity? Or do we, in the traditional Western model, feel that if there’s good in the organization, it’s only because of our own qualities of leadership? I have realized over time that the real role of a leader is not to control but to mid-wife-to evoke those qualities of commitment, compassion, generosity and creativity that are in all of us to start with. ~Margaret Wheatley