Ambiguity and Leadership
Today’s leaders are expected to deal with ambiguous situations. We’ve all heard that, right? In a way, it’s trivially obvious but sounds like something you should jot down from your 10 day MBA book. It’s not like a CEO or Entrepreneur ever has their job responsibilities really nailed down for them. They are expected to define the position. Moreover, what’s the bit about ‘today’? Was it ever the case that leadership wasn’t ambiguous? Since when did we ever have things really nailed down for us?
This tautological line, however, is being used increasingly not so much as unhelpful advice to actual leaders, but instead as a cliche response from middle managers explaining away their inadequacy. Think about it – since when does a subordinate ever respond to their lead with “I understand the work I’ve done for you is ambiguous in value, but today’s leaders are expected to deal with ambiguous situations.” That is career suicide. Instead, the statement is more often used in the reverse – when a leader fails his subordinate, he might punt to the ambiguity of the situation. Indeed, some leaders may bath themselves in ambiguity, using ambiguous milestones such that they can claim progress where none has been made, or ambiguous job requirements so they can criticize a subordinate for not living up to ‘expectations’ when they’re having a bad day.
I claim we should be taking a different tact with this statement. Indeed, when a leader punts to a subordinate justifying herself with ambiguity, shouldn’t we ask the question – who’s responsibility is it to deal with that ambiguity?
Why, today’s leaders, of course.
When a leader cloaks their milestones, expectations or other requirements in ambiguity, they are literally not doing their jobs. They are not dealing with ambiguity, and instead having their subordinates deal with ambiguity. They have left their subordinates holding the bag when it comes to who to blame when ambiguous situations get out of hand, even though it’s their job to resolve ambiguity insofar as possible. This often seems like a political move – ambiguity’s metaphorical cloak becomes a bit more literal when it comes to masking intentions and actions to potential political rivals. Some smoke filled room horse trading is always to be expected – we can’t be naive. But allowing this ambiguity to leak through to your team is failing to do your job.
Misaligned strategies, the 8 different bosses situation, or even allowing the innate ambiguity of the actual markets to leak through are all examples of the sources of ambiguity. But they are all examples of horribly failed organizations or leadership, and it’d be unjust to instead claim that they are just what ‘we have to deal with today’.
Good leaders should seek out ambiguity and banish it insofar as possible. Are you not sure whether we need to satisfy customer A or B? Do as best analysis as you can in the due amount of time and just go with it. Don’t punt to someone else. Make a fucking decision, for Christ’s sake. It’s what you are paid to do. Good leaders unite their team behind a single vision even though the real world is very ambiguous. This is how you show up on game day and dominate because every other team still doesn’t even have a plan. Good leaders inspire their teams by removing the uncomfortable ambiguity of business – “I know both customer A and B are important. But this team is going to focus on A, you’re bonus will be tied to A, and your promotion will be tied to A.” This is how you motivate people, by giving them clear requirements even though you may yourself have not received any. If you give a subordinate any inkling that they should somehow do both customer A and B even though there’s only time for one, you’re going to get half assed work and a lot of hours worked for nothing. You will have failed to do your job to properly direct your subordinates, and you may be able to horse trade awhile long clouded in the mystique of ambiguity, but you will forever be an imposter and eventually, they will find out.
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