6 Ways Leaders Can Thrive in Ambiguity

By David Dotlich

As leaders, we are constantly faced with complex and confounding challenges that seem to defy solutions. Relatively straightforward problems with customers, technology or products are often solved at the supervisor or manager level. For example, “How can I reduce my delivery costs by 20 percent?” or “What steps do I need to take to increase employee satisfaction scores?”

But the really sticky challenges — the ones that have many right answers and no clear wrong ones — have a way of remaining unresolved until they float up to the executive leadership for evaluation and resolution. As business and leadership become more transparent, interconnected and complex, these problems are everywhere: “How do I balance the needs of my business unit with those of the enterprise?” “How do I reward entrepreneurial behavior and team collaboration?”

With competing forces pushing and pulling executives in each direction, leaders must find ways to stay healthy, balanced and self-aware to remain effective in the face of paradoxical problems. Instead of fighting ambiguity, great leaders make ambiguity a friend.

Here are six ways that leaders can manage through paradoxical problems by thriving in ambiguity:

1. Make paradox your friend. Managers are usually rewarded and promoted for solving puzzles such as lowering costs or executing a project, but higher up the executive ranks, those kinds of clear wins are hard to come by. Instead, executives must shift their leadership style to manage paradoxical issues that are longer-term, bigger-picture and more important.

It takes guts to embrace paradox, but making it a friend rather than denying it will create more organizational value over time. Leaders who don’t make the transition are doomed to fail.

Andrea Jung, the former chairman and CEO of Avon, had to learn how to make the shift to becoming a paradox leader the hard way. When she was at the helm, Avon began a strategic imperative to tightly manage the brand globally. Skilled corporate brand managers wanted to implement a single strategy in all markets.

But, people in the field wanted to make their own decisions about products based on their understanding of local markets. Both were valid though in opposing positions. As a result Jung said: “We didn’t do a good job of managing the local paradox. We swung too far too fast. We went from one extreme to the other without understanding the implications. The differences had major implications for our business model, leadership roles and operating clarity that we did not handle well.”

2. Don’t close too early. Highly organized and focused corporate leaders often like to make lists, cross them off and feel a sense of accomplishment. Paradoxes keep coming back and are never solved. Bill Weldon, the former chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson and board member of Exxon and JPMorgan, said, “Good leaders must learn to endure chaos. Sometimes the right answer doesn’t appear for a while.”

By deciding too fast, or ending discussions too early, you may miss the opportunity to find the right path forward.

3.  Learn to say “I don’t know.” Managing paradox and complexity requires the input and intelligence of as many people as possible. If the leader has all the answers, others don’t see the value of offering their own insight. Leading is learning, and by saying “I don’t know,” a leader gives others permission to show their own vulnerability and contribute new ideas. A leader who creates a learning environment creates an innovative one, too.

4. Own your derailers. There are times when leadership strengths devolve into destructive behaviors, such as when boldness sours into arrogance or healthy skepticism transitions into being distrustful. We may not like to recognize these truths about ourselves, but our direct reports and those around us are aware of them.

These personality traits can be managed if you’re aware of them and willing to acknowledge them openly and often so others don’t need to tiptoe around you.

5. Engage in authentic dialogue. Encouraging dialogue around a tough paradoxical problem is a no-brainer, but the effort can create roadblocks and political entrenchments instead of creative problem-solving if you’re not careful.

For example, Cameron Clyne, CEO of the National Australia Bank, sought to have his top leaders gain an enterprise-wide perspective. He had already tried changing everyone’s goals and rewards to motivate them to align around a holistic view, but he wasn’t getting the response he needed. He encouraged face-to-face dialogue so they could better understand each other’s points of view.

Clyne was particularly interested in having his top executives resolve the tension between long-standing contradictory goals: investing to grow market share and saving to bolster the bank’s balance sheet. No matter how much they spoke, he couldn’t gain consensus among his core leadership team.

So he tried something unconventional. He paired executives who disagreed with each other and asked them to prepare a presentation on the other person’s point of view. Not surprisingly, the paired executives returned with brand-new ideas for tapping new market opportunities, new technology efficiencies and new savings by sharing resources.

6. Recognize you’re not finished and never will be. Here’s the biggest paradox of them all. The only way to become a finished leader is to remain an unfinished one. By committing to lifelong learning, experimenting, dialogue and behavior change, you step outside your comfort zone. In other words, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that’s when you take the greatest strides in personal and professional growth.

Ambiguity is inevitable, so tap into it to become the best, most effective leader you can be.

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