Three Tenets of Mastering the Unknown, Leadership through Ambiguity

If it is about sense-making in ambiguous business situations, I’m intrigued, especially as we live ever more in a VUCA world, one that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. VUCA is a term coined by Bob Johansen, a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future, a think-tank with high-profile clients and staying power.

Foggy with Umbrella Flickr by h.koppdelaney

Dealing with Ambiguity, illustration photo by h.koppdelane, Flickr CC

Note:  This post was originally posted in 2010 and was updated in 2013 with new references.

With VUCA in mind, Randall White & Sandra Shullman have good information on dealing with ambiguity in leadership, both in 2010 and in 2012, which I’ve excerpted below to share with REVELN readers.  A heading to their most recent article, which was updated in 2012 reads:  

“Dealing with ambiguity is seldom taught, but higher-performing leaders tend to understand that uncertainty can be the gateway to opportunity.”
Dealing with ambiguity is seldom taught, but higher-performing leaders tend to understand that uncertainty can be the gateway to opportunity.
Excerpted 2010 / 2012:

…on dealing with ambiguity:

Three Tenets of Mastering the Unknown

The authors advise that mastering uncertainty is learned over time, and the skills to do it should be included in the curriculum of leadership development initiatives. They suggest three simple coaching suggestions which I’ve adapted to a simple acronym:

Using LSP  (Learning Sensory Preparedness) to succeed in your business:

1. LEARN:  Learn to make a decision with incomplete information.

  • To help leaders become comfortable with discomfort and ambiguity, learning leaders can help to define and develop observable traits such as:
    • Mystery as a motivating factor: People who rise to the occasion in ambiguous situations are happier when they don’t yet know the answer. They’re bored when the answers are given and obvious.   (from the updated 2012 article here.)

This is not the same as contrived decision-making.  “Those who struggle with ambiguity sometimes reach for false certainties, just to appear decisive.”

Even the best leaders draw on experience and patterns, which can also be their biggest blind spot.  Instead of reaching for false clarity, and unsupported confidence, researchers counsel a first step is to reduce the odds of making bad decisions by identifying potentially biases,  ‘red flag conditions’ that are detrimental to good decision making documented in the book, “Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep it From Happening to You.”  

For example, clouded judgment may be due to:

  • Pattern recognition, Experience:  Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers, who saved Lehman in the aftermath of the LTCM crisis in the late ’90s though 10 years later, that experience could not help him during the massive housing-driven collapse, which was much more complex, much more complicated.
  • Self-Interest:  John Thain at Merrill Lynch and Bank of America who lead the taking and giving of large bonuses and renovated corporate offices at the wrong time, 2009.
  • Pre-judgments:  From General Thad Allen, (Retired), “The problem with the government’s initial response to Hurricane Katrina was that we did not get the problem statement right.  The government thought the problem was a hurricane when it had become a flood.”  Those is charge did not alter course and adapt even in the face of conflicting data coming in.
  • Distorting attachments:   Even close advisors may offer the wrong guidance, as in John F Kennedy’s handling of the averted Cuban missile crisis.  President Kennedy, knew, from the Bay of Pigs example that his Air Force chief would want to bomb Cuba. He protected himself from this bias in making the final decision.


 “Those who struggle with ambiguity sometimes reach for false certainties just to appear decisive.”



2. SENSE: 

“Read up. Train your mind to be fluid and attuned to faint signals of impending change. Uncertainty is the ocean on which we sail. Studying up is a way of understanding that ocean and coming to terms with the inevitability of ambiguity.”


“Examine five ideas or trends that you know nothing about, but that will affect the business in three to five years. Consider how they may or may not affect your products, services and jobs. Discuss how you can prepare for them.”

The original 2010 post included the comment that mindset — more than personality and behavior forms an observable pattern among some of the most successful leaders and that a fearless approach to uncertainty is required, based on interviews with numerous C-level executives around the world, says Elizabeth Mellon, executive director of Duke Corporate Education.


Sensing, Kayaker & Mist, photo by FreeWine, Flickr CC

Sensing, Kayaker & Mist, photo by FreeWine, Flickr CC

The authors’ 2010 study also identified sets of behaviors that tend to hobble performance during uncertain times and used these to classify workers.

1. Poor transitioners….

2. Wet blankets….

3. Conflict avoiders….

4. Muddy thinkers….

5. Complex communicators….

6. Detail junkies…

7. Narrow thinkers….

8. Repeaters…

[The] debate over strengths-based leadership versus development [brings up a] career-altering issue. A person who is strong in one or two areas but weak when it comes to managing ambiguity is rendered ineffectual or counterproductive.

About the authors:  Sandra L. Shullman, Ph.D., and Randall P. White, Ph.D., are partners in the Executive Development Group and on the faculties for Duke Corporate Education and HEC School of Management.



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One Response to “Three Tenets of Mastering the Unknown, Leadership through Ambiguity”

  1. […] 3. Anti-fragile:  “I Embrace  Randomness & the VUCA”    The Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous   (See more about VUCA here.) […]

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