When “Uncertainty” Is In the Job Description

I was talking to a friend recently who is second in command at a publicly traded billion-dollar company. He was telling me about an important project he was responsible for, and how at one point he became completely overwhelmed. It had gotten complicated, he said, and he wasn’t sure what to do next.

“I went into my office, shut the door, and stared at the information in front of me.” He told me. “I didn’t know what to do, so I just let the wave of panic and anxiety wash over me.”

Panic? Anxiety? This does not sound like someone who should be in charge.

Well, actually, it does. Being in a leadership position does not necessarily mean that we will have all the answers, nor does it mean that we have suddenly acquired magical all-knowing super-powers.

My friend went on to tell me how he eventually resolved the problem by ignoring his insecurities and persisting through the issue. He started talking with others in his organization about it. This ultimately led to some good ideas for possible solutions. He did not let those negative emotions take over.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have been sitting at my desk and all I see in front of me is ambiguity, chaos, and uncertainty. It’s almost par for the course of being in management these days. If we are moving forward at all, we will be constantly facing uncharted territory where we are in over our heads with no immediate solution. We may be uncomfortable and intimidated.

We are perplexed.

Tim Brown, CEO of the Palo Alto design firm IDEO, knows the feeling. He said this in a recent New York Times interview:

“That was one thing that used to make me feel very, very insecure as a business leader – thinking: Am I supposed to have all the answers? Because I know I don’t. And then I finally came to realize, well, nobody else has all the answers either. It’s just that somehow we’ve got this culture of having all the answers… I’m personally perfectly comfortable admitting that I don’t know the answers and that I’m more interested in the questions anyway.”

Brown, and other leaders like him have learned to become comfortable with uncertainty. Instead of needing to know everything, they learn how to ask for help.

William C. Taylor, founder of Fast Company, recently wrote in Harvard Business Blogs that

“…[This is] the mindset that too many of us expect even our most honest leaders to display — the assumption that being “in charge” means having all the answers. In simpler times, fierce personal confidence, a sense of infallibility as a leader, might have been a calling card of success. Today it is a warning sign of failure, whether from bad judgment, low morale among disillusioned colleagues, or sheer burnout from the pressures of always having to be right.

He goes on to say that the smartest and most sustainable path for effective leadership is in asking for help from others. The best ideas are often going to come from customers, from employees, from peers and outsiders.

The Apostle Paul has a similar way of looking at this issue. He says in 2 Corinthians 4:8:

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

As leaders, we are not infallible machines. We are flawed and breakable, like those fragile jars of clay that Paul talks about, with all the cracks in it. So, naturally, there will be times when we feel stressed, pressed down, tired, and perplexed. But we can press on with the knowledge that God is present and at work, even in the ambiguity and complexity.

There is a path that will be revealed soon, you just can’t see it yet.

Relax, then. Don’t panic.

Have faith.

Lean into it.

And don’t forget to ask for help.

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