Leading When Uncertainty is Pervasive

Leading When Uncertainty is Pervasive

That leadership is about dealing with change – handling difficulties as they arise and adjusting course when necessary – is not news, or new. It involves diagnosis, then action, and it involves a great deal of resilience.

The problem is, the nature of decisions, even the approach needed to make them, varies hugely depending on the level of complexity and uncertainty in the environment. The more volatile and ambiguous the circumstances we face, the greater the difficulty of diagnosis becomes. As this happens, decision-making becomes less science and more art.

This is a real challenge, right now. If there is a simple way to describe the operating environment of the last few months, it is the absence of predictability and increase in ambiguity. Complexity has been spiralling out of control, and this has fundamental implications for leaders, many of whom have leaned heavily on their market, technology or industry expertise in reaching their level of seniority. The problem is, as uncertainty increases, so does the risk that expertise will become more of a hindrance rather a help.

“I know that I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing.” ~ Socrates

The most compelling warning that I’m aware of, which highlights the dangers of over-reliance on expertise and being blinkered by certainty our knowledge is correct, comes from the largest study to date on this subject, completed by Professor Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania. Over 20 years, and involving 82,361 forecasts by a large group of experts, he investigated their thought processes as they made predictions about future events, then he followed up to assess their accuracy.

This piece of work has become quite famous, perhaps because the high-level conclusion that Tetlock drew from it is rather memorable: that the average expert “is not much better at predicting the future than a dart-throwing chimpanzee”. Many of them, he found, would have done better if they had made random guesses!

I believe this should strike a note of caution for all of us…

What makes this study extremely important, is that Tetlock was able to identify a small group of experts who consistently defied the odds. They made startlingly better predictions than everyone else, even in the face of massive uncertainty.

What differentiated this group was their thinking style: they were comfortable with complexity and uncertainty and did not allow themselves to become overconfident. This allowed them to constantly seek new perspectives and to avoid getting locked into the rigid mindset of what they already “knew”.

This article suggests that responding to the pervasive and unprecedented uncertainty that we all face today requires a whole new style of leadership: one built on humility, openness and commitment. I like this suggestion, not least because strengthening these traits does much to overcome the problems associated with over-reliance on expertise outlined above.

Read the Article: Leading in Uncertain Times: Be Real – Not a Hero

My Advice:

Remember, one thing that history demonstrates conclusively is that almost everything, even the most widely accepted scientific “facts”, will be disproven eventually. Unfortunately, we naturally tend to resist the idea that we might be wrong, because falling back on our expertise is comfortable and almost effortless. On the other hand, learning requires commitment and can be very uncomfortable. That’s where resilience comes in. We must learn to welcome the discomfort inherent in facing new challenges to maximise our ability to cope with highly complex and ambiguous situations. By practicing humility and openness, which will help you to see things from a new perspective, while displaying confidence and commitment, you will dramatically improve your resilience, thereby transforming your ability to adapt effectively.

Developing Inner Agility

Developing Inner Agility

This article, from McKinsey & Co., suggests that, “To navigate effectively, we must learn to let go—and become more complex ourselves“.

The concept of developing greater personal complexity encapsulates the approach that I’ve adopted in virtually all of my work. Because great leadership is critically dependent on emotional intelligence (EI), we can see that it has more to do with our mindset than any skills we might possess. This means that it must be constructed, from the inside out, by creating learning environments, not instructed from the outside in, as has traditionally been the case when teaching skills.

Let’s look at this in the context of one key point from this article, which is the statement that, “The problem isn’t the problem; our relationship to the problem is the problem”. In relation to resilience, this would suggest that it is not stress that is the problem, but our perception of the situation that is the problem. This recognition is incredibly powerful, because it puts us in a better position to find a solution.

At the heart of this challenge, of changing our relationship to our environment, is one of the biggest paradoxes of dealing with the unknown.

Current thinking in psychology, which is supported widely by research, suggests that we all experience stress when faced with change or uncertainty, to some degree. This is thought to be the result of deep conditioning that evolved to aid our survival.

The problem today is simple: very few situations we face are genuinely life-threatening, but our mind reacts to uncertainty as though faced with a predator: by triggering our fight-or-flight response. We experience this as stress, and it drives behaviours that may be highly inappropriate, such as acting on instinct, falling back on old habits, or to becoming so preoccupied with seeking more information that we cannot make any decision at all.

So, what is the paradox I referred to above?

Let’s assume for a moment that our stress is not the result of misperception. The root cause of the stress that arises when we face the unknown is that we don’t know how to resolve the situation we face, and we therefore worry about the outcome. If we knew what to do, we wouldn’t feel stressed!

It follows that what we most need in such situations is a new solution; however, that would require creativity, and – here’s the paradox – creativity is blocked by stress. How ironic! Because our brain is maladapted to modern challenges, just when we most need to be creative is when this mental resource is least available to us. It occurs because the part of our brain that triggers our fight-or-flight response, the amygdala, also suppresses activity in our prefrontal cortex, which is the part that gives rise to our creativity (as well as many other higher human functions).

To remain agile and creative when confronted by unpredictable change, it is essential that we learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty. I believe that this article conveys some useful insights to help you move towards this goal.

Read the Article: Leading with Inner Agility

My Advice:

When we resist a situation, wishing it would go away because it feels uncomfortable, that resistance increases the stress we experience. This puts us into a vicious cycle where, as the article highlights, our poor relationship to the problem only increases the magnitude of the problem as we see it.

Try to shift your perception of challenges, to see them as opportunities to learn and grow. Every world-class athlete knows the importance of this mindset, having achieved success by continually pushing him or herself into situations where they are stretched beyond their current physical, mental and emotional limits. Without the stress this creates, the growth they seek is impossible. If you can use your challenges in a similar way, as melting pots that create the conditions necessary to become stronger, they will immediately feel less stressful.

Building Resilience by Managing Your Mood

Building Resilience by Managing Your Mood

A quick question: how reasonable is it to suggest that you set yourself a standard whereby you take responsibility for your mood 100% of the time?

For many people, this might seem an unreasonable expectation. After all, things happen that feel bad, and it seems completely natural and normal that, from time to time, emotions take over which drive our behaviours. However, research suggests that if you passively allow this to happen, it will very likely damage your results and cost your business money!

I want to challenge you to raise your game. Improving your self-leadership, so that you are able to “show up” at your best more often, is one of the foundations of emotional intelligence, and sits right at the heart of the capabilities that enable people to build resilience. However, it is also one of the most difficult things for leaders to achieve because, as outlined above, it requires a shift in mindset, not simply the development of new skills.

As highlighted in this article, the impact of a leader’s mood results can be huge. According to Daniel Goleman’s work (he was a forerunner in the field of EI):

  • Up to 30% of a company’s financial results are determined by the climate of the organisation.
  • Roughly 50-70% of how employees perceive the climate is attributable to the actions and behaviours of their leader.

If he’s right, this means that 20% of your financial results could be a direct result of your mood. That’s a huge opportunity, because not many people have understood that it is even possible for us to actively shape the way we feel and behave on an ongoing basis. Fewer still have built the mental capability to do so consistently.

The starting point is to recognise that our emotions result from our thoughts, and the way we think is something over which we have a choice. Much research has demonstrated this point; indeed, this discovery is considered to be one of the most significant findings in psychology of the last 30-40 years.

I know of no more powerful example of our power of choice over our thoughts than that provided by Viktor Frankl. He was a Jewish psychologist who spent the war years in one of the German concentration camps, and his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, makes for very thought-provoking reading.

Unlike most books about the Holocaust, Frankl doesn’t detail the atrocities that he and the other prisoners went though. Instead, he describes his observations about the mental impact of the extreme abuse they suffered.

Frankl noticed that, even in those appalling conditions, there were people who were still able to stay upbeat and provide care for others. He concluded that these men were proof that, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”. (Highlighting is my own.)

That any of these men were able choose their attitude, even in those horrendous conditions, surely proves that we must be able to do so in our daily work, regardless how much additional pressure we are facing today.

Read the Article: A Leader’s Mood, The Dimmer Switch of Performance

My Advice

The principle that underlies that famous Frankl quote is profoundly liberating, and offers the most powerful and rapid approach that I know to building resilience. By first accepting that we can always improve the way that we think and feel, then learning to do so, the impact on the people we work with can only be positive. Furthermore, our health benefits, and the knock-on effects on our business can be felt right down to the bottom line.



Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

In conversations about resilience, an area that is commonly undervalued is the importance of keeping our physical body fit and strong. It has long been proven that this has direct, beneficial effects on mental health.

Many people know this at some level, but struggle to find time to exercise. Therefore, I’d like to introduce you to an exercise technique that has enabled me to dramatically improve my training results by magnifying the effectiveness of the time I spend working out, making great results possible in much less time. Dr. Joe Mercola, a leading expert in natural health, says that he has “never seen any fitness method as beneficial for health as this one”; a statement that I an attest to from personal experience.

Known as blood flow restriction (BFR) training, the technique originates from Japan, and is extraordinarily safe, even for people with injuries and the elderly. This is because benefits are achieved using just a fraction of the weight typically needed to benefit from conventional resistance training.

By tricking your brain and body into believing that you are doing high-intensity exercise while actually doing low-intensity exercise, BFR can enable you to:

  • Build muscle – it may well be unique in its ability to prevent and treat sarcopenia (age related muscle loss).
  • Increase bone density, which reduces the risk of osteoporosis.
  • Grow more blood vessels and increase their lining (endothelium)
  • Improve aerobic capacity and endurance.

As I said, I’ve found this to be extraordinarily effective, and therefore recommend that you give it a try.

Watch the Video

For more detailed explanation on how to do BFR training, Dr. Mercola has some excellent articles on his web site, though you may need to sign up to access them. Note also that, in the video, Dr. Mercola uses inflatable bands – these are the ideal, but are also quite expensive. The elasticated bands that I’ve found to be very effective are cheap and readily available online (I bought these – in two sizes, for legs and arms).