The most important meta-skill as leaders.

The human brain has evolved with a strong bias towards certainty. It makes us feel safe, calm, and in control. The corollary to this is that we avoid feelings of uncertainty because they cause us psychological pain. This is tied to the deep-seated human fear of the unknown which is a primal instinct. 

This was helpful for most of human history as hunters and gatherers when our main concern was survival, but the challenges of modern civilization require a different approach. While this served us well in the past, to develop ourselves as leaders and increase our effectiveness in the workplace, we must increase our capacity to be with uncertainty. 

The global pandemic is just the latest manifestation of our changing environment. You’ve likely heard of the term VUCA to describe the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous landscape we live in. Whether social, political, or environmental changes, it seems that everything is up in the air and we simply don’t know what’s around the corner. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” It seems uncertainty is here to stay, and yet we don’t know how to manage it well. 

I find that the most common way we react when faced with uncertainty is to fight back. Remember, we experience uncertainty as psychological pain and so on some level we perceive it as an attack. We often try to seek out new information, focus on learning as much as we can, or trying to figure out all the variables. This can create a false sense of hope that we can control the environment, when of course, we can’t. There’s a way that the world is–uncertain–and we reject that and do everything in our power to make it certain. 

It’s also normal for us to shift into a victim mindset and feel like things are happening to us. Rather than rejecting what’s happening, we can submit to it. This puts in a helpless space where we are at the mercy of uncertainty, which is a disempowered stance.

Although these approaches are natural, they end up causing more harm than good. They’re rooted in the belief that things should be certain, and so we try to force them that way or capitulate. But that’s not reality. 

There’s a greater possibility to step into self-leadership. If you can instead learn to be with uncertainty, that will allow you to be more focused, agile, and effective. 

What does it mean to “be” with uncertainty? 

Accepting things as they are and trusting that you will be okay. Too often we either ignore the signs or work hard to change what is unchangeable. These are both rejections of reality. Sticking our head in the sand or blowing against the wind are just ways of avoiding “being with” what is currently happening. Ultimately, this is rooted in a deep, primal fear that you will be unsafe or kicked out ofo the tribe when things change.

In the modern era, the ability to be with uncertainty is crucial. As leaders, we need to take risks to create transformation. We need to stay grounded in order to navigate our teams through change. We need to develop a deep presence that allows others to trust us to lead the way.

“Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas.”

How do we develop our capacity to be with uncertainty?

1) Acceptance. Take an honest assessment of the situation. What do you know, and what don’t you know? Acknowledge that based on the best information you have available.

2) Commitment. What are you committed to creating? Do you merely want to stay safe? Or do you want to create something incredible? No value judgment on either of those as they each have their place. It’s important to check in on what you’re hoping to accomplish.

3) Self-trust. Lean into self-trust. You will be safe regardless of what happens. You will be able to figure things out. 

This is easier said than done. We’re working against tens of thousands of years of evolutionary instincts. Learning to accept what’s scary and trust yourself despite the fear will unlock your potential. 

What might be possible for you as a leader if you were to increase your capacity to be with uncertainty?

If you’re curious to learn more or want support on your journey, schedule a free 20-minute discovery session. I’ll help you get crystal clear on what you’re capable of, uncover the biggest obstacles in your way, and create a plan for your learning and growth.