Leadership as holding uncertainty

Viv picks out some nice ideas from Phelim McDermott on the subject of leadership.

“We love the security of the illusion that someone is in control. Even more than the discomfort of a potentially more creative process. That’s how we want our leaders: ”Reassuringly blameable.”

Of course carrying that blameability accounts for a lot of the crankier behaviour we see in managers.

I don’t like to get too caught up in competing definitions of leadership, but I think Phelim’s is pretty thought provoking:

Well I think I would say it’s to model being comfortable with being uncomfortable. To be comfortable not knowing.

I think leadership is often mixed up with a kind of vehement conviction and I think this provides a good pushback to that.

1 thought on “Leadership as holding uncertainty

  1. Rob Paterson

    As Viv has been going back and forth on Leadership, she has stimulated my own thoughts.

    How about this?

    For better or worse, leaders emerge or are appointed – they direct, or not. Much of the debate here seems to be that directing and so being the sole person responsible is not a good thing.

    Buy what they all do is to embody the culture. They represent it the culture. So in Germany after the defeat of WWI and inflation, the people sought an autocrat – a leader who who help them feel safe and good about themselves again. They wanted to be told. And they got him.

    In England, no one wanted war so they got a leader like Chamberlain who was prepared to do anything to avoid it. He was open to uncertainty. But when war was inevitable, England called also for an autocrat. And when war was over, they rejected him immediately.

    So in organizations are leaders “elected” and if they are is this to do with the cultural needs and maturity of the “electors”?

    In families, the parents are not elected but they also produce the organizational electors. Hitler came from the same kind of background as many Germans.

    Doug Willms shows in his work that there are 3 types of parental culture.

    “Authoritative” – Parents who establish a warm and nurturing relationship with their children but set firm limits for their behaviour

    “Authoritarian” – Parents who are highly controlling, requiring their children to meet an absolute set of standards

    “Permissive” – Parents who are overly nurturing and who provide few standards for behaviour and are extremely tolerant of misbehaviour.

    The Willms research informs us that the poorest learning and development outcomes are found in families that have Authoritarian and Permissive cultures. The research team’s conclusion is:

    “..Given that about a third of parents might be characterized as Authoritative, most parents could benefit from training programs that improved their skills. …The aim would be to provide parents with practical ways to monitor their children’s behaviour, engage with them positively and encourage their independence[6]”

    We are beginning to understand that simply targeting the poorest of our society will not shift our total development deficit[7]. Wilms is making the point that the collective of family functioning, or culture, is a very productive place to look and work.

    Geert Hofstede, the leading scientist looking at culture in the workplace reinforces this view:

    “Every person carries within him or herself patterns of thinking; feeling; and potential acting which were learned throughout their lifetime. Much of it has been acquired in early childhood, because at that time a person is most susceptible to learning and assimilating. As soon as certain patterns of thinking; feeling and acting have established themselves within a person’s mind; (s)he must unlearn these before being able to learn something different; and unlearning is more difficult than learning for the first time. “[8]


    Here is a response to Clay Christensen from Andy Grove, of Intel, on leadership:

    “None of us have a real understanding of where we are heading. I don’t. I have senses about it…… But decisions don’t wait, investment decisions or personal decisions and prioritization don’t wait for that picture to be clarified. You have to make them when you have to make them. So you take your shots and clean up the bad ones later.

    And try not to get too depressed in the part of the journey, because there’s a professional responsibility. If you are depressed, you can’t motivate your staff to extraordinary measures. So you have to keep your own spirits up even though you well understand that you don’t know what you’re doing.”

    (Then, Clay Christensen asked, “So how do you work on that part about keeping good spirits or managing emotional response, leading your team.” Grove answered:)

    “Well, part of it is self-discipline and part of it is deception. And the deception becomes reality — deception in the sense that you pump yourself up and put a better face on things than you start off feeling. After a while, if you act confident, you become more confident. So the deception becomes less of a deception. But I think it is very important for you to do two things: act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly.”


    Good point Ciaran

    Morale is a key point – especially when times are uncertain


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