In uncertainty, be a vulnerable leader

Making decisions under uncertainty is a difficult art. One of the reasons is that the tools and concepts we use are largely designed for risk, for clearly defined and recurring situations. Such tools assume that uncertainty is something to be protected against. This mental model of protection, which seems so logical, is actually counterproductive. What if, on the contrary, we should not protect ourselves (too much) from uncertainty?

This manager of a large industrial company is upset. Since the first quarantine during the Covid pandemic, his boss has increased 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 down considerably, but despite numerous protests, the boss will not budge.

This situation is not surprising. After all, a dominant mental model of management 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 response to uncertainty in general, and to a sudden shock in particular, is one of protection, based on reinforcing existing attitudes rather than challenging beliefs. The pandemic has amply confirmed these findings. In particular, the predictive attitude is reinforced by trying to predict “better”, by developing analyses and scenarios, and by calling on more and more experts to try to decipher a very opaque future. In terms of organization, centralization is emphasized in order to speed up and better control decisions. The belief is that better forecasting leads to better mastery of events. And when the storm calms down, it is difficult to go back. While this reaction of rigidifying systems and attitudes seems logical and obviously not without interest, it is counterproductive in the face of uncertainty.

Uncertainty can be defined as the lack of objective information about a phenomenon. This uncertainty stems from the fact that the phenomenon is largely novel, often complex, develops over a long period of time, and has multiple dimensions. The cave-in epidemic is a good example: Its origin is difficult to pinpoint. We don’t know when it will end, if ever. Its consequences are manifold and often unpredictable: sanitary, of course, but also social, economic and political. And these consequences are likely to unfold for years to come. Or maybe the epidemic will disappear in a few months; it is impossible to know, even three years after its beginning.

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

The problem with protection and control is that by trying too hard to protect ourselves, we end up isolating ourselves from reality. Armor, no matter how strong, is never a universal solution, as the disaster of French chivalry at Agincourt clearly demonstrated. With strong armor, you get stuck in the mud and become an easy target for archers.

The paradox of an overly protective logic in the face of uncertainty is therefore that it increases the risk of failure. But the danger of this logic goes further. By limiting our ability to act in the name of reducing risk, it also prevents us from taking advantage of the opportunities that uncertainty creates. Uncertainty exists because the future is undetermined. If it were, human beings would be mere spectators of independent “historical forces. Uncertainty, then, is what makes human action possible, especially creative action, whether by artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, or innovators. What these creators demonstrate is that while they cannot always predict or control what will happen, they do control how they can take advantage of it. They accept letting go of control over reality, which is largely illusory anyway, in order to focus on what they can control: their own action in relation to that reality.

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

The only way to allow a creative connection with the changing reality is to open up, to let air and light into the armor. In a way, this means accepting a part of the vulnerability that characterizes “that which is easily accessible”. We must therefore accept that we can easily be affected by reality and its surprises, with the risks that this entails. Vulnerability is therefore a condition that allows a better connection with 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 actually a strength.

Of course, vulnerability is not an easy concept to sell to leaders. They have been trained and indoctrinated with the idea that a leader knows everything, plans everything, can do everything, and must protect his or her teams, who are supposedly less capable of thinking and acting and fearful of an uncertain future. This mental model is a legacy of the Middle Ages; it is completely outdated and needs to evolve.

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🇫🇷 French version of this article here.

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