How to square up to uncertainty as a leader

Facing a complex, ambiguous situation? Don't leave it to others to make a decision. Here's how to take the lead.

by Rebecca Alexander
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

Last month, Mark Carney examined the many facts in front of him and made a judgement call - the Bank of England would not, after all, be raising interest rates. A central reason was the continuing uncertainty in global markets. Because, despite the vast array of information now available to us: the numbers, analysis, data sets, algorithms, opinion polls, and research papers accessible online, one thing humans have still not eradicated is uncertainty.

This can be hard to swallow. We're so used to having the facts at our fingertips via our smartphones that it's tempting to fall for the (impossible) promise of perfect info leading to perfect decisions.

What has this got to do with you? A lot. Because in any job, as you push against its boundaries and continue to stretch yourself, you will come up against uncertainty. You'll find yourself in situations where you're no longer the subject area expert, yet are still expected to take the lead. Expanding responsibilities will eat up time you once used to brief yourself thoroughly for every meeting. Your growing knowledge and experience will render old certainties invalid as you grasp the wider complexities at play.

And so we do the 'Don't Know, Don't Show' dumb-down. Instead of voicing an opinion or making a decision, we leave it to others. Otherwise confident, informed and articulate individuals hold back, scared they will be 'exposed' for not knowing everything, or of expressing an idea they haven't pre-cooked.

Here lies the difference between merely good leaders, and the best. The best face the uncertainty and are prepared to act. Staying in your comfort zone of known knowns will keep you where you are, but it won't advance you any further. Seniority, by its very nature, means stepping up in situations that are increasingly complex, volatile or ambiguous.

So how do you square up to uncertainty without inviting ridicule?

• Start by testing yourself in a low-risk situation. Offer an opinion where normally you'd stay mute. Suggest a course of action without having stress-tested it first.

• Show confidence by being prepared to flex, scrap or extend your train of thought.

 Realise that some of your decisions will be wrong, but know that you are resilient and can learn from your mistakes. Don't let fear of failure stop you.

 Stay curious. What do others think? What are the ideas around the table? Good questions can unlock some of the best solutions.

 If opinion-leading isn't your thing, be an ideas consolidator. Be alert to how different suggestions might be woven together. Canvas widely and ensure good ideas are heard.

 Embrace multiple points of view. Put yourself in the shoes of someone you respect. How would they respond? What might a rival organisation do? What would your old boss have done - good or bad? Considering others' views can inspire a new perspective.

Rebecca Alexander is an executive coach at The Coaching Studio. Please email comments or questions to or tweet @_coachingstudio

Hear more from Rebecca Alexander at MT's Inspiring Women Edinburgh on 17 March

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