Courageous Leadership Episode 3: Courage to Clarify [Video]
Max DePree said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality…” But what if realities are unclear and ever-shifting?
Things have dramatically changed. What worked before may not work again.
Leaders’ experience and expertise are becoming more and more irrelevant, and change is only accelerating. How can leaders move the team and organisation forward in such a complex and ambiguous environment?
Calvin: Today, our topic is the Courage to Clarify, which really comes down to: How do you decide what to do when nobody knows for sure what to do? That's been one of the challenges that many organizations have been going through. I've spoken to quite a few leaders, and they're also feeling very uncertain about what to do going forward.
How do you decide what to do when nobody knows for sure what to do?
Wen-Wei: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, the CEO was telling me privately that "Nothing ever prepared me for this present situation. Just because I'm in this seat, people think I automatically know what to do. But you know what, I'm secretly hoping for someone to just come and tell me what to do.”
Calvin: So Wei, how do we do this? How do we bring clarity into an uncertain situation?
Wen-Wei: That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? One of the first things to clarify is that we are dealing with different situations. Now, there are some things within our control that are predictable, but there are also lots of things that can pop up and surprise us.
We call that ordered systems and disordered systems.
In ordered systems, problems are complicated, but they can be solved with the right amount of technical expertise. In a disordered system, problems become complex situations where you can't trace cause and effect. These problems are less straightforward, and I think that's what's tripping up a lot of people today.
Tackling complex problems begins with this mindset: What got us here won't get us there. If we try to deal with it in exactly the same way we have done before, then we are going to end up with less than desirable consequences. So what we're advocating for is a sense-making process before a decision-making process. Sensemaking is really about figuring out what kind of problem we're dealing with. If it's a disordered situation, then it's a complex situation. A technical solution is not going to work. Implementing a technical solution is asking for a world of pain.
Tackling complex problems begins with this mindset: What got us here won't get us there.
Instead, we need an adaptive response. An adaptive response is really starting with zero assumptions: What you think you know or don't know, put that aside for a while.
This is where engaging the wider team is so critical. Last week, we spoke about the courage to connect, the need to create that relational quality and safe space for all stakeholders to weigh in. However, in our anxiety to find that one right answer to press ahead and do something, the fast way may end up being slower.
It is important for the leader to come to the realization that despite all the experience and expertise he has, he may not be able to see everything. He needs to know that he can draw from others who are able to bring together their pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, for him to see the fuller picture.
It is important for the leader to come to the realization that despite all the experience and expertise he has, he may not be able to see everything.
Calvin: Sometimes, it is difficult to take a long pause and sense-make, but this is needed in order to move forward. One way in which it can be done is to get some information, so that we know that we are heading in the right direction. As we are taking steps forward, we continue to sense-make: It's almost like cycling in heavy rain, where you can't see very far, but the moment you start to move ahead, then you can see a little bit more. But you have to keep moving.
If you think about cycling, it is a lot easier to stay on the bike if your bike is moving. And it's a lot easier to turn your bicycle as well—but not when it’s moving too rapidly.
Wen-Wei: It takes courage to make a decision even when circumstances are not clear. I think it was Peter Drucker who said something like, "The task and responsibility of management is to choose between ambiguous causes of action."
The second aspect of courage is probably more related to humility: The willingness to admit when you're wrong and course correct.
Courage to be humble: The willingness to admit when you're wrong and course correct.
The third one—and this is a burden on the mantle of leadership, that unless you've been there, you may not fully appreciate—is the courage to be misunderstood.
As a leader, you face so many demands and complex factors, but you have to make a call. You do this the best way you know how, for the best of the organization and the people. However, there will always be criticism and misunderstanding.
Calvin: Thank you for sharing. I will like to just summarize the points brought up so far: There is a myth—the myth of one right answer. In order for us to actually break through this myth, one quality that a leader needs to have is to become aware that he only has a piece of the answer.
There is a myth—the myth of one right answer.
The next part is about how we sense-make through seeking other perspectives. That allows us to get the larger reality. The main point here is not so much about who is right or wrong; it is about the conversation that allows for different views to surface. As we hear one another, we begin to get a much better picture of how we address complex problems.
The last point is about having the courage. As a leader, I need to have the courage to make decisions, even when I am not very clear. However, I still need to have enough information in order for me to start moving in the desired direction.