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 Certainty or Uncertainty, which one is a hallmark of great leadership?

Certainty or Uncertainty, which one is a hallmark of great leadership?

A few decades ago, the literature on leadership would have advised you to be as certain as you can be if you are a leader and hope to have your team follow. While there is some truth to this opinion, a new view has also arisen recently claiming that a hallmark of great leadership today is to be uncertain. This point of view espouses that leaders who are certain are like the lone wolf autocrat who always think they are right and doesn’t listen to others. There’s some truth to this view too and we can still see many examples of this sort of dominating leadership in the world still today. 

This right and wrong dialogue about whether to be certain or uncertain, in itself, extends an outdated way of thinking. As always, I tend to think the best way to show up as a leader depends on the current context. 

Think about it this way. If you are in a meeting about a topic where you are not the most informed expert in the room, then wouldn’t it be wise to be uncertain and open to learning something? And conversely, if in a meeting where you know more than most everyone in the room and have more expert knowledge of the situation, subject or domain, then wouldn’t it be wise to show up more certain? 

Here’s another good reason. If your team has been beating around the bush for months on end about a topic that needs to be resolved, if you can’t end the madness with some directive certainty, then your team is not really being led at all. What we say in such circumstances is that we are intentionally going to be decisive “given what we know now” so that we can make some traction. If we wait until we know everything, nothing will ever happen! And conversely, if we’ve just come up with a new idea, it’s in the early stages of being researched or explored as a possibility, then it’s not time to push for a decision. In short, the stage of effort is also of importance in knowing what the team needs most at a particular point in time. 

There are numerous other aspects of context that should be considered by a leader, but I think we’ve made a point with these two examples. In short, black and white answers about how to lead are usually short-sighted overgeneralizations about situations that have an endless number of variables to consider. Being open to learning is often a great way to show up, but even being open to learning has its drawbacks on efficiency.  Sometimes you just decide given what you know, then come back to it, if and when you learn something more that might cause you to alter course. 

Ever wonder why being a leader is an art? This is why. There are no right answers all the time.