A dangerous blindspot – leadership and uncertainty

I was talking with a friend a while back about her work coordinating high stakes meetings. We were discussing uncertainty – the growing need to consider it. She told me, ‘in big business and high level meetings, every minute counts. By the time you arrive there, you need to have no uncertainties or elements that are out of your control.’

I reflected afterwards: is it the case that the people running our largest organisations, because of their very function, or the dominant norms surrounding them, are plagued by an illusion of control, an illusion of certainty? Admitting uncertainty is a sign of inadequacy; acknowledging the limits of control, a sign of weakness.

Yet uncertainty, and limited control, is the basic human condition. As we see now: because a wet-market somewhere, a sneeze, a handshake, a wrong move, a political leader saying ‘don’t talk about it’, we have a global pandemic on our hands.  Certainties shake – travel is disrupted, schools closed, countries cut off. Covid-19 simply magnifies our limits. The best we can do is reduce uncertainty to some degree; what we can control is so little, compared to what eludes our capacity.

And so, if we do not accept this radical uncertainty as a premise, we live in an illusion, and everything we believe is untrue. How concerning, then, that our leaders – or so it seems – live their life in such disconnection with the real?

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