How to Deal with Uncertainty as a Leader

Leading through the unknownI had a Brigade Commander who used to say in the middle of our planning process, “Remember: We don’t know what we don’t know.” As a green second lieutenant my first response was something akin to, “Well, duh. How does that help?”

Ah, the brash naiveté of youth. Luckily, his words stuck with me and as they sank deeper into my mind I began to grasp what a profound statement it truly was. No matter how much information you have, you never have it all – and thinking like you do is dangerous. All that stuff beyond your knowledge horizon will affect you. Count on it.

Lack of information does not, however, excuse you from leading. If it did we wouldn’t get anything done. Life is full of uncertainty. As a leader you need to get comfortable operating with uncertainty. Don’t let it paralyze you. Gather all the information you can in the time you have, make necessary assumptions, choose a path, and take action. Here are a few tips to guide you:

1. Know the facts. As part of your planning process separate speculation, rumor and opinion from facts. Know what you know. Facts are the things you can count on. Once you lay out the facts, you can conduct research to fill in the obvious holes that appear.

2. Know your assumptions. Assumptions are allowed – encouraged even. Just keep an eye on them. Assumptions are not facts – they’re placeholders in the foundation of your thinking, but they are not facts.  Know what your assumptions are and as you learn more keep trying to validate or invalidate them.

3. Expect the unexpected. Never believe in the perfection of your plan, that it has taken every possibility into account. You can’t plan for the unexpected; but that doesn’t mean you have to be surprised when it shows up. Look for it. Welcome it. Trust in your ability to adapt and improvise. That’s when the fun really starts!

As you wholeheartedly execute your plan, stay nimble and remember: you don’t know what you don’t know.

How do you deal with uncertainty as a leader?

3 thoughts on “How to Deal with Uncertainty as a Leader”

  1. my job is all about uncertainty- and i constantly have to assess the probabilities and ignore my emotions– emotions that can cloud the distinction between facts and assumptions. great blog!

    1. Glad you liked it. Sounds like you’re good at maintaining a running estimate.
      And I agree, sometimes our emotions can definitely get in the way – we should never let them run the show. Other times, though, how you (or others) feel about something is a FACT that is ignored at your own peril. Know what I mean?

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