Embracing Uncertainty as a Leader and Changemaker

Embracing Uncertainty as a Leader and Changemaker

A new year holds promise and also brings with it uncertainty.

How do you respond to uncertainty as a leader and changemaker? Do you typically greet it with open arms, or hide from it pretending you have all the answers, as you feel uncomfortable not knowing the outcomes.

What happens when you approach uncertainty believing you have all the answers? You may set goals and push through to accomplish them, focusing mainly on the metrics, without taking into consideration your people and an intervention’s impact on your organization and its culture. You may miss out on opportunities and creative solutions that can arise from uncertain situations.

To illustrate what happens when we greet uncertainty with open arms …

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about working in international health and development is the uncertainty, and with that, the opportunities for new and creative solutions, that present themselves. For example, when I was working in Afghanistan about 10 years ago as a Senior Technical Advisor in Planning and Performance Measurement, I met with the Minister the second day of my 9-month contract. At that time, she shared that although their original plan was to hire a policy and a planning advisor, since I had some experience with policy that she wanted me, within the first month, to give her a report of my impressions of her Ministry’s policy development and planning processes and what recommendations I would offer to improve them. This, on top of the tight timeframe I had to work with her folks to develop the Ministry’s first strategic plan and build their capacity in planning!

I went back to my office and asked the Afghan physician and policy advisor who sat beside me, if he had an org chart of the Ministry in English. He said “no” but he had one in local language. He printed one out for me and I asked him to tell me which departments were in the 15 boxes below the Minister and Deputies and the names of each Director while at the same time writing them all in English on the chart. Then I asked if he would take me to each one of their offices and introduce me to them (a few at a time).

At that time, I shared with each person that I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with them for 1 to 1.5 hours over the next day or so, and asked if there was a time that would work for them. I then followed up with the interview questions by email, which I quickly formulated. Within a month I had interviewed the top 15 department heads, rolled up in a report for the Minister what THEY perceived where the key strengths and weaknesses in their policy development and planning processes, their suggestions for improvement and added my own recommendations. In addition to learning a lot about how policy development, implementation and planning was done at the Ministry, I also had met one-on-one with 15 influential leaders in the organization, which served me well in the coming months.  

If I had planned the above scenario in advance, it couldn’t have worked out better!

What ingredients are required of leaders and changemakers so we can more effectively deal with uncertainty and embrace it?

I believe the following are important in this complex and rapidly changing world we live and work in:

  • Authenticity – Acknowledging that you do not have all the answers or aren’t sure what to do.
  • Flexibility – Creating opportunities to reflect, and the ability to change direction during a process that has an uncertain outcome (e.g. culture change process) .
  • Emotional Intelligence – Recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses, surrounding yourself with a team that has complementary skills and personality traits to yours, inviting their thoughts and suggestions, and truly listening to what they have to say.
  • Process Understanding and Inclusive Orientation – Valuing a facilitated process that encourages different voices to be heard and supports diversity.
  • Openness to new ideas – Inviting creative ideas and listening to what people are saying; (e.g. providing opportunities to encourage people to tap into and express their creative sides).
  • Trust that everything will work out. Chaos theory has demonstrated that order comes out chaos.

Uncertainty conjures up fear in many of us; however if we greet it with open arms and include the ingredients above, incredible opportunities and solutions are possible!

How do you embrace uncertainty? I invite your thoughts below.

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