Leading in Uncertainty

January 9, 2018 By Katherine Tyler Scott

Comments by Katherine Tyler Scott, Managing Partner, Ki ThoughtBridge, LLC; presented at Churchill College, Moller Centre, Cambridge University, October 10, 2017[1]

Leaders are agents of change. They create it; initiate it; respond to it; implement and manage it. While none of this is news what is challenging is that they are facing a degree of change unparalleled in the history of humankind unless compared to the fourth and seventeenth centuries. The pace and complexity of change seems to be unrelenting. Change of this magnitude is difficult to grasp particularly because we are in the midst of it and the uncertainty and anxiety it is creating is affecting individuals, organizations, and communities all over the globe. The ubiquity of uncertainty is manifest in the systems in which we work, live, play and worship. The rapid growth of technology is already having dramatic effects on jobs, our economies, on the meaning of work and what it means to contribute value to society, on relations, on what is deemed to be ethical. We have accepted the word “truthiness” in Webster’s dictionary and are having increasing difficulty determining what is false or fake as opposed to what is truth and inviolate.

How can leaders lead in a state of dis-ease and instability that accompanies change?

Three Actions:

1. Understand the Universality of the Process of Change

Whether it’s Homer’s Odyssey, Kurt Lewin’s three phases of change (unfreezing, transition, refreezing), or William Bridge’s ending/transition/new beginning model, or John Kotter’s eight stages of change, or the monomyth in The Hero’s Journey as described in Joseph Campbell’s 17 steps, all of them describe a process that is universal: a departure from what is known, an encounter with the unknown in which there are continual challenges that test the person, and ultimately a return to where it all began. But the return heralds the transformation of the leader and the passing on of wisdom that will bring great benefit to the larger system.  This is life’s journey. It is universal; it is the journey of the leader; the journey of change.

These parallel journeys bring us the wisdom we too often lose; leading change is about action and authentic being, competence and character, purpose and performance.

1. Mind The Gap

We live in a time of no longer and a time of not yet. To be in this in-between time is to be in a space we call The Gap. It is an essential part of any change process that ends successfully. It is the space where leadership or lack of it is most visible. It is place of complexity and possibility, fear and frustration, excitement and anger, confusion and anxiety, conflict and creativity, loss and opportunity, growth and regression. It is a terrifying mixture - a cauldron of the tension between opposites that can fragment necessary structure and order unless the leader has done their inner work. For those who want their efforts to make a real difference there is no escape from the necessity of inner work.

The Gap can also be a place of divisiveness and dissonance, high emotionality, with the most obvious indicator of overload and difficulty coping is high anxiety. The work of the leader is to withstand the potentially corrosive feeling states in a system, remain self-differentiated and enable followers to get through the turbulence of The Gap, more intact and able to assume the work of implementing the new vision or mission.

I am reminded of the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in Hearts of Fire:

“We are quite naturally impatient in everything

to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something

unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress

that it is made by passing through

some stages of instability—

and that it may take a very long time.”

2. Develop the Discipline of Inner Work

“The first and paramount responsibility of anyone who purports to lead others is to know and manage self; ones’ own emotions, integrity, character, ethics, knowledge, wisdom, words, and acts.” Dee Hock.

Forty-four (44%) of corporate executives say that their big changes didn’t stick according to a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Project Management Institute. (Others say it is nearer to 70%). According to Robert Half International, nearly half of senior managers admit that the change efforts most commonly fail at the execution phase. Those who have been successful have a clear strategy, are able to motivate others to embrace the direction, and provide systems that help others to succeed. They have been able to motivate others to embrace uncertainty. A key ingredient successful corporate leaders cited in leading successful change was agility. Agility is the capacity to act with grace and skill, knowing when to act and at what pace, by reading reality truthfully and then responding responsibly. This capacity comes from having a solid core of values and a strong sense of self at the center that permits flexibility. It is the mark of self- differentiated leadership.

Self-differentiated leaders possess both technical and adaptive skills. The successful application of these skills and the achievement of the mission/vision/goals are directly influenced by the kind of person the leader is. This is the inner work – the work of developing self-awareness, self-understanding, self-control, and of having insight and understanding into the emotions and behavior of others. Self–differentiated leaders are able to mitigate the regressive tendencies in any system, e.g., reactivity, quick-fix mentality, herding instincts, blaming, scapegoating, and being stuck the phenomenon that occurs in any system when there is sustained stress and chronic anxiety. In a system where there is leadership with weak or no self, societal regression occurs and a form of dependency that diminishes the self and leads to a dependency on autocratic leaders and dictatorships occurs.

The ambiguity and confusion that is found in The Gap phase of change can often diffuse or obliterate boundaries in a system. In such a case the absence of self-differentiated leadership leads to chaos, people taking on the work of others, being triangled into conflict in which they have no part, escalating conflict over minor issues, and where there is a prolonged period of high anxiety retreat to the previous state of functioning, or seek out the least effective person or the most decisive person for the position of leadership–the former allows them to avoid change; the latter provides the illusion of certainty. The trade-off is a loss of independence and efficacy, and the creation of a toxic culture in exchange for certainty.

If there is not an ability to understand the process of change, to enable leaders to lead in The Gap and develop a discipline of Inner Work, the implementation of the change will not succeed. And perhaps this is one reason so many change initiatives fail. WE need a revolution in the way we teach and form leaders for the coming age. Their core and character- who they are- is just as important as anything they do. Leaders in the future will need to invest in education that develops the self, increases their agility, deepens their self-knowledge and their sense of self-differentiation. Our education, training and professional development materials and resources in the field of leadership must begin to include Inner Work. It is critical to effective leadership and healthy functioning of organizations and societies.

[1]The Moller Center was commemorating the Center’s 25th anniversary and dedication of the James MacGregor Burns Leadership Academy.  Panelists were asked to address particular the leadership challenges in the next 25 years.  Katherine spoke about the challenge of “Leading in Uncertainty.”