Good leaders embrace the ‘not knowing’

Josie Gibson Collaboration, Complexity, Leadership, Purpose

“The ideal art, the noblest of art: working with the complexities of life, refusing to simplify, to ‘overcome’ doubt.” Joyce Carol Oates

Soldiers and sportsmen often exemplify what’s wrong with the world. Misplaced hero worship, arrogance and aggression, drugs, sexual abuse, misogyny, outright cruelty; the checklist is long and depressing.

These two ancient pursuits also exemplify the complex, ambiguous world we operate in. For all that’s wrong with them, each offers valuable leadership principles by which to navigate changeable and uncertain situations.

Military strategists coined the term ‘fog of war’ to describe the uncertainty soldiers confront in battle. No military strategy makes it through a war intact: what emerges on the ground requires every foot soldier, every officer, to make calls based on fast-changing conditions with only intuition, experience and the information immediately at hand to guide them.

In his classic, On War, Carl von Clausewitz writes that “war is the realm of uncertainty; three-quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty”.

Faced with vast and constant unknowables, the military is a prime example of the unsolvable tension between self-organisation and hierarchy, between sensemaking and command-and-control thinking that can literally cost lives.

Sport, combat without the bloodshed, exhibits similar tension between knowing and not knowing, action and inaction.

In 2014 Ric Charlesworth stepped down after guiding the Kookaburras, Australia’s men’s hockey side, to World Cup glory. A doctor and a federal politician, Charlesworth is regarded as one of Australia’s greatest-ever coaches for his stellar work with the national women’s hockey team. In the 1980s, he created controversy when he dropped the team captaincy for the concept of ‘leaderful’ teams.

‘A single leader can generate only so many ideas and concentrate on only so many things,’ he told Forbes magazine. ‘A critical mass of leaders allows for more possibilities and more solutions and ideas to be filtered by the group. You’re therefore likely to come up with better answers.’

With his intuitive understanding of complex systems and feedback loops, Ric Charlesworth was a man ahead of his time.

What Charlesworth recognised was that no game plan holds up on the field. Hockey is a team sport, but no one player can call the shots, determine the plays. Each team member must sense, combine, fall back and respond to the highly volatile conditions as they experience them.

Sometimes a situation will demand a game-changing act, daring and pattern-breaking. At other times restraint is critical. This constant recalibration of individual and collective judgment and response, captured elegantly by Richard Martin’s peloton formation, is challenging and unlearnable in its constant fluidity.

As legendary US basketball coach Phil Jackson knows, for people conditioned to act, not acting can be more excruciating than a loss or failure.

‘Basketball is an action sport, and most people involved in it are high-energy individuals who love to do something — anything — to solve problems,’ Jackson says. ‘However, there are occasions when the best solution is to do absolutely nothing.’

‘When a player isn’t forcing a shot or trying to impose his personality on the team, his gifts as an athlete most fully manifest.’ US basketball coach Phil Jackson

As Dionne Lew points out, the challenge for leaders is not so much knowing ‘enough’ as it is to accept ‘not-knowing’ and the limitations of science. That it’s impossible to predict how a situation will pan out, that one’s store of answers might prove deficient, that others might produce better solutions or, rightly, none at all.

In a knowledge-based system, such letting-go seems counter-intuitive. The less we know, the more we intuit. The less we control, the more we achieve. If we’re lucky, we’ve encountered such individuals. They might not hold formal leadership positions but their ability to maintain grace under pressure, to guide and navigate chaotic conditions, makes them stand out from the crowd.

Some come equipped with the mindset and skills. Others develop them, through pursuits like sport, combat and politics, until their finely honed ‘not-knowing’ endows them with a natural authority.

Paradoxically, letting go makes leaders far more effective.

‘You all win and lose together,’ says Charlesworth. ‘If the players aren’t taking responsibility for what happens, then they’re not in the right place… A leaderful team makes sure the players own their tactics. It puts the ultimate accountability back on them.’

This post first appeared on LinkedIn.