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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • March 1, 2014
  • minute read

Comfortable With Ambiguity? Or Avoiding Clarity? The Difference Will Kill Your Team. 

A version of this article appeared at Inc.com
Even much-loved leaders can drive their team crazy.
Of course, driving your team crazy is one way to incite heroic performance (with all the good and bad that entails), but eventually – if you drive your people too crazy too often – you’ll discover that once people stop following, leadership is a lonely and fruitless exercise.
There are a lot of different ways that leaders can drive their teams crazy, some more valid than others: unbridled passion, the pursuit of perfection, narcissism, the Visionary leader’s shiny-new-ball syndrome, to name a few – but the most destructive crazy-maker habit is less obvious, creeping up on both the perpetrator and his or her team stealthily, initially causing more amusement than concern, until all at once, it isn’t funny anymore.
It works like this: Early on, certain types of leader can thrive by being comfortable with ambiguity. While perfectly capable of pulling the trigger when necessary, a good leader will often let situations develop further, and for longer, than others are comfortable with. When their team pushes for answers, clamors for immediate action, presses for decisions, the leader, less stressed at the need for instantaneous resolution, ‘sits in the fire’ for longer, considering options and weighing alternatives.
Initially, this is a strength, albeit – for the team – a frustrating and occasionally irritating one. The comfortable-with-ambiguity leader’s Zen-master approach (“You must be patient, young grasshopper, for the answer to appear”) feels, to their team, like a mashup of Yoda-like mentoring and a caricature of ambivalence. Over time, the team learns to adapt to the leader’s attitude to their requests, and finds ways to counteract what might otherwise lead to a bottleneck in decision-making.
But then, at some point – often when the business hits Whitewater and requires focused, deliberative leadership to survive, the leader’s quaint ambivalence becomes a ticking time bomb. In need of clear direction at a time of real crisis, the team begins to see their serene leader less as a humorous caricature of Mad Magazine’s ‘What, me worry?’ Alfred E. Neuman, or as a benevolent Buddha, and increasingly as a dangerously disengaged, infuriatingly ineffective eunuch, incapable of providing the direction desperately needed to avoid an upcoming disaster.
Until, eventually (and usually quite quickly), the team’s frustration and fear boils over into the red zone, leaving everyone disoriented, hurt and often angry. Confused, disoriented and most importantly, feeling unmoored, the best people in the team leave – often a situation they couldn’t have imagined happening a short time previously – leaving the leader with little operational depth and a sudden inability to execute the decisions they do make.
So here’s the issue: If you value your ability to live with ambiguity; if you regularly play with alternative scenarios that may (or may not) ever come to anything; if you can hold two or more opposing ideas in your head simultaneously, or if you can look a binary decision in the face and see fifty shades of gray, good for you. Just don’t allow your comfort with ambiguity to be an excuse for avoiding clarity.
If you’re a leader, you don’t get to abdicate the need to lead for the selfish luxury of ambivalence. Not if you want to stay a leader, that is.


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