Five things to do when leading in uncertainty

The reason markets hate uncertainty is because people hate uncertainty. Each of us has a limited capacity—it varies from person-to-person—to live in a state of ambiguity. We need closure. Some of the most horrific suffering in this world is the product of unsolved crimes like child abduction. It can be paralyzing in the extreme.

Because of our dislike for uncertainty it is often difficult for leaders to be effective during a time of great ambiguity. For those who do lead effectively during a time of uncertainty, that leadership often comes with great personal cost.

I’ve witnessed this in the lives of my clergy colleagues in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The average membership of a PC(USA) congregation is around 180. 76% of PC(USA) churches are smaller than 200 members. On a given Sunday around half of the members of a church are present in worship.[i]

As pastoral leaders, how do we respond to these sorts of ambiguous situations? What do we do when we don’t know what to do? Or, when what we don’t know that what we’re about to do will help solve the problem we’re facing?

I’m currently reading Mary Beth O’Neill’s book Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach to Engaging Leaders with their Challenges. She writes,

By ambiguity, I mean the business situations that are by nature unclear and murky. It’s not like people have suddenly lost their intelligence of problem-solving ability. Rather, the issues never seem to sort themselves out.

Leaders often lose their bearings when confronted with lingering ambiguity. Like a pilot landing a plane in low visibility uses an instrument landing system (ILS) to guide the plane smoothly onto the runway, leaders can take five actions when confronted with ambiguity. These actions may not shift the fog of uncertainty, but they will provide a guiding framework to navigate through it.

GBAS - runway

Five things to do when leading in uncertainty:

  1. Acknowledge the ambiguity
  2. Distinguish for yourself where you are clear and where you are unclear about the situation
  3. Articulate to others the boundary between your clarity and your lack of clarity
  4. Say what you want to do, given the situation
  5. Tell others what you need from them

Acknowledge the ambiguity. Unnamed ambiguity hinders communication and also inhibits performance. It’s a manacle that makes a victim of leadership teams. Naming the ambiguity places it front and center and also helps the entire team to own it. The truth is—despite what our hearts often tell us—in 99% of situations, the ambiguity is no one’s fault. Letting go of the guilt will help a team to move forward.

Distinguish for yourself where you are clear and where you are unclear about the situation (internally). Surrounding an ambiguous situation there are often some places of clarity. In the case of a church with declining membership and attendance the place of ambiguity may be “how do we get more members?” Around this sticky issue there are places of clarity that should be named. For example, a congregation could discover that young families are living in the neighborhoods around the church, that they tend to be middle class. In other words, there are people that could come to this church—its not sitting in an island of farmland with no one around for miles. This kind of certainty helps leaders to identify other areas of certainty, which over time can build a better picture of the precise issue that is hindering the ministry or business.

Articulate to others the boundary between your clarity and your lack of clarity (externally). This is often best done simply by stating the problem you’re trying to solve and then listing your knowns. Then, spring-boarding from that into the listing as many unknown factors as you can. Putting all of this together should enable your team to (eventually) arrive at consensus about where the boundary is between certainty and ambiguity.

Say what you want to do, given the situation. The aim here is not finding the perfect solution. The goal is not finding absolute clarity. It is simply weighing all the evidence you currently have, identifying some ways forward and moving toward one of them. In the case of the declining church, it could be something as simple as deciding the leadership making the decision to actively engage neighbors in conversation with a view to more deeply understanding what life is like for those who live in the neighborhood. Even something that simple helps propel a team toward greater clarity.

Tell others what you need from them. Other members of the team need clarity about the project, lines of authority, and desired outcomes. As a team member it’s critical that this is stated explicitly so that everyone understands it or if there is haziness (beyond the problem itself) that it is acknowledged and then clarified.

Leading in uncertain times is very demanding. This template from Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart can provide a great way to step back from the problem and systematically edge forward into greater clarity rather than becoming disoriented and losing focus.

What do you do to navigate uncertainty?

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[i] Presbyterian Mission Agency, Presbyterian Church (USA). Available Online at: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/research/10faq/