In uncertainty, be a vulnerable leader

Decision-making in uncertainty is a difficult art. One of the reasons is that the tools and concepts we use are, for the most part, design for risk, i.e. for clearly defined and repeated situations. Such tools assume that uncertainty is something to protect against. This mental model of protection, which seems so logical, is in fact counterproductive. What if, on the contrary, we should not protect ourselves (too much) from uncertainty?

This executive of a large industrial company is upset. Since the first confinement during the Covid pandemic, his boss has strongly reinforced centralization, and now wants to validate all decisions, even the most operational ones. The middle managers are frustrated and demotivated, and the company’s operations have slowed markedly, but despite numerous protests, the boss will not budge.

Such a situation is not surprising. After all, a predominant mental model of management, and one that I have heard expressed many times, is that the role of leaders is to reduce uncertainty for their team. Management research has also shown that the default reaction to uncertainty in general, and to a sudden shock in particular, is one of protection, based on the reinforcement of existing attitudes, rather than a questioning of beliefs. The pandemic has amply confirmed these results. In particular, the predictive attitude is reinforced by trying to predict “better”, by developing analysis and scenarios, and by calling on more and more experts to try to decipher a very opaque future. In terms of organization, centralization is accentuated in order to accelerate decisions and better control them. Here, the belief is that better prediction leads to better mastery of events. And when the storm calms down, it is difficult to go back. If this reaction of rigidifying systems and attitudes seems logical, and is obviously not totally without interest, it is nevertheless counterproductive in uncertainty.

Uncertainty: a question of attitude

Uncertainty can be defined as the absence of objective information on a phenomenon. This uncertainty stems from the fact that the phenomenon is largely novel, often complex, developing over a long period of time, and impacting numerous dimensions. The Covid epidemic is a good example: Its origin is difficult to determine. We don’t know when it will end, if it ever ends. Its consequences are multiple, and often unpredictable: sanitary of course, but also social, economic, and political. And these consequences will probably develop for years to come. Or maybe the epidemic will disappear in a few months; it is impossible to know.

The problem with protection and control is that by trying too hard to protect ourselves, we end up being isolated from reality. An armor, however strong it may be, is never a universal solution, as the disaster of the French chivalry at Agincourt clearly showed. With a strong armor, you get stuck in the mud, and become an easy target for archers.

Deadly protection (The Morning of the Battle of Agincourt, Sir John Gilbert; Source: Wikipedia)

The paradox of too marked a protective logic in uncertainty, therefore, is that it increases the risk of failure. But the danger of this logic goes further. By reducing the capacity for action in the name of risk reduction, it also prevents us from taking advantage of the opportunities created by uncertainty. Uncertainty exists because the future is not determined. If it were, humans would only be spectators of independent “historical forces”. Uncertainty is thus what permits human action, and in particular creative action, be it by artists, scientists, entrepreneurs or innovators. What these creators show is that while they cannot always predict or control what happens, they nevertheless control how they can take advantage of it. They accept to let go of a control over reality, which is anyway largely illusory, to focus on what they can control: their own action in relation to this reality.

From a protective posture to an open logic

Indeed, the key to acting in an uncertain and unexpectedly changing reality is to keep a creative link with it. It is not, of course, a matter of abandoning the idea of protection entirely, but of not reducing one’s logic to protection alone.

The only way to enable a creative connection with the changing reality is to open up, to let air and light into the armor. This means, in a way, to accept a part of vulnerability, which characterizes “that which can be reached easily”. We must therefore accept that we can be easily affected by reality and its surprises, with the risks that this entails.

Vulnerability is therefore a condition that allows a better connection to reality, because it allows things to pass that we would normally want to block. This means that leaders must admit a form of humility in the face of reality and accept that this vulnerability is in fact a strength.

In the face of uncertainty, change the mental model of management

Of course, vulnerability is not an easy concept to sell to managers. They have been trained and indoctrinated with the idea that a leader knows everything, plans everything, and can do everything, and that he or she must protect his or her teams, who are supposedly less able to think and act, and are afraid of an uncertain future. This mental model is a medieval legacy; it is totally outdated, and must evolve. 

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