How Leaders Can Address Uncertainty Requires Understanding

Leaders are faced with uncertainty all the time: from catastrophic weather to changes in the marketplace, there is no place where leaders don’t have to face the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that change brings.


“Leading teams through times of uncertainty is the most courageous work leaders can take on.”

There are a few reasons why it is so difficult to navigate change and they are:

  • Systems
  • Mindsets
  • Circumstances

Leading other people through conflicts, disagreements, tantrums, fights, confrontations, difficulties, and disappointments is the most important leadership labor that many of us will ever do.

But there are a few things working against us:

We are told that anyone can lead, anytime anywhere. This is a unique tick of an American business culture built at the intersection of the myth of rugged individualism and the reality of having to compromise to get along.

Many teams believe this idea, but when they are asked, challenged, or offered the opportunity to navigate through uncertainty—without reassurances—many leaders and teams fail to even take up the challenge in the first place.

How Leaders Can Address Uncertainty Comes Down to Thinking

Leaders trained at the US Army War College are familiar with the acronym VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

They are taught that when faced with circumstances and situations that are fluid—or volatile—where the solutions are complex and the answers are non-obvious, the best thing to do is to change your thinking.


For leaders to be successful at changing their thinking, they must engage with active listening, engaging at the moment, and caring actively about the team.

This requires leaders to set aside the noise, chaos, confusion, and despair inside of their own heads, and to get inside the noise of someone else’s head. This transition is har when leaders are consumed with winning the moment, avoiding embarrassment, or too busy playing the chess game of decisions and counter-decisions to really step back and observe the circumstances of the change.

How Leaders Can Address Uncertainty Relies on the Team

Leaders can lead teams through uncertainty when the teams themselves are prepared to face uncertainty. Unfortunately, too many leaders, like too many generals, prepare contingency plans for the next problem based on lessons learned from the last problem they faced. Thus they are blinded to the future, unable to manage fragile systems, and are fooled into believing that uncertainty is random and cannot be tamed by the team.


This is not true.

Leaders who shift their teams toward an anti-fragile style will succeed in the long run.

Anti-fragile teams have the following aspects in common:

  • They firmly know and have the will to execute ruthlessly on what they do best regardless of external circumstances,
  • They resist the urge to grow bigger and remain small and nimble,
  • They welcome ambiguous moments with excitement rather than dread,
  • They don’t fall for the illusion of robustness based on external factors such as budgets, locations, or even their own knowledge,
  • They are never bored, they dance with fear, and they are constantly seeking the advantages that volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity bring to circumstances.

The future will be shaped by leaders and teams who engage courageously in the emotional labor required to lead other people through a world growing in uncertainty.

The future will be owned by the people (and organizations) who have the courage to go to the other side of the horizon.

That’s innovation.

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