Leadership Despite Shades of Gray

by Andy Kaufman on June 30, 2004

In a recent issue of Horizon Time (our electronic newsletter read by thousands of leaders around the world) we state that leaders have no choice but to learn to become more comfortable leading despite ambiguity–the shades of gray.

Leaders often know this intellectually but as we grow in our responsibilities we can get lured into the trap of over-simplifying problems and issues, pretending there is black-and-white when it’s really a matter of trade-offs.

So, how can leaders improve their ability to lead despite ambiguity? Here are some ideas for your consideration:

  • Seek perspective (Webster: “the capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance”). Get input from many sources. Don’t simply rely on your own observations (and biases).
  • Understand Horizon Planning. The closer something is to you, the easier it is to predict. The further it is (the closer to the horizon), the more ambiguity. Don’t fight it. Manage it.
  • Manage expectations (yours and others). Don’t promise predictability when you cannot provide it. Keep people in the loop when change occurs.
  • Allow responsible mistakes. They’ll be made when there is ambiguity. If not, you’re not taking enough risk (or punishing people when mistakes happen). We prefer people shoot themselves in the foot instead of the head but realize mistakes come with ambiguity.
  • Keep learning. Read intentionally. Learn from others.
  • Capture lessons learned. Take time to capture what you’ve learned so you can repeat successes (and avoid mistakes).
  • Surround yourself wisely. Don’t hire your clones. Surround yourself with people who think differently from you.

These and more ideas are from my book Navigating the Winds of Change: Staying on Course in Business & in Life. Click for more information.

What are your most challenging ambiguous situations? How have you learned to lead despite ambiguity? Post a comment to share your thoughts.

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