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Leading for impact (part 2): Valuing uncertainty in leadership

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

In this second blog on empathic leadership for impact, I want to consider the importance of valuing uncertainty in leadership. Embracing and becoming comfortable with uncertainty as a leader takes courage and humility in a world that looks to leaders for certainty. Political leaders that are seen to deliberate or dither are typically punished by voters. However, for leaders who want to facilitate research impact, there are four key benefits of embracing uncertainty:

  1. If we are comfortable with uncertainty, we are less likely to be tempted by simple (but ultimately simplistic) options that appear certain, but that reveal their complexity over time, enabling us to make better decisions;

  2. When leading for impact, this is particularly important because the people we seek to serve are likely to have very different perceptions to us, and to each other, and if we are able to accept the uncertainty inherent in these differences rather seek artificial consensus, we can make more empathic decisions;

  3. Leading for impact often means coming up with new solutions to previously intractable problems, which means abandoning the tried and tested and embracing the uncertainty of new ideas that have never been tried before. Becoming comfortable with uncertainty is a prerequisite to pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge and practice. If you want certainty, you had better stay on the cutting edge but if you can embrace uncertainty, you can inhabit the unknown space beyond the cutting edge, where the answers you need might just lie; and

  4. Being comfortable with uncertainty is a sign of mastery in leadership. Novices follow protocols and often come unstuck when unexpected things happen, but an expert thrives on the uncertainty of new situations, using their extensive knowledge and experience to make decisions with confidence under conditions of uncertainty, adapting as they go to secure the necessary outcomes.

Uncertainty is a defence against simplicity, enabling us to make better and more empathic decisions. As a leader it is often attractive to opt for simple, black and white solutions, which often turn out to be simplistic. If we can become comfortable with uncertainty, we are able to sit with a decision long enough to begin to see the shades of grey and complexity. If you need to be certain, you will almost certainly simplify things and miss important details, and very often the best course of action lies in acknowledging the shades of grey and making the necessary compromises and adaptations to navigate uncertainty.

When leading for impact and seeking to tackle real-world challenges, being comfortable with uncertainty is particularly important. This might sound strange. Surely, we need evidence and facts that we can be certain about, if we want to find robust solutions to the problems that the world is facing? In valuing and engaging with uncertainty, I’m not suggesting that we peddle shaky ideas. The rigour of our research is the foundation upon which we build any impact. However, I believe that becoming comfortable with uncertainty is a prerequisite to successful stakeholder engagement and the kind of engaged and original thinking we need to truly make a difference.

There are two reasons for this. First, if impact is “perceived and/or demonstrable benefits to individuals, groups, organisations and society” arising from research, as I defined it in my 2020 article in Research Policy, then what constitutes impact is very much in the eye of the beholder. A benefit to you may be damaging to my interests, and vice versa. Doing research in pursuit of impact requires us to hold our impact goals lightly enough that we can pivot to the needs of other stakeholders as they become apparent, working with them (if possible, in advance) to find co-benefits that might meet their needs too, minimizing the negative effects of our work on them, or being prepared for the attacks these groups are likely to make on our work as they attempt to defend their interests.

Working with stakeholders is inherently unpredictable, and the sooner we get comfortable with this, the more effectively we will be able to adapt to the shifting needs and interests of those we are seeking to help. If we can do this, we open the door to learning from our stakeholders during the research process. This is important because these people are deeply embedded within the systems we are attempting to study and/or influence, and from their perspective they can see complexities that our disciplinary blinkers may have blinded us to. Unless we engage with these perspectives, we may come up with answers that work perfectly in experimental conditions or for one isolated part of the system, but that do not work in the messy complexity of the real world. Most stakeholders will be able to instinctively point out over-simplifications in our work, whether this is because they know things we do not, and did not think of studying in our research, or because they can see links to wider systems that are beyond the scope of our work.

A good example of this was a Government researcher I met in Botswana while I was doing my PhD. Like me, he was studying overgrazing by cattle in the Kalahari desert. He confidently told me that the circular patterns of bare ground around watering points must be a natural phenomenon. This was a significant finding as everyone had previously assumed that these patterns were caused by cattle who grazed more intensively closer to the watering points they returned to every evening. He had spent many years fencing off experimental plots at different distances from these watering points, so that cattle couldn’t graze inside his plots. Every wet season he would measure the plants inside and outside his plots to compare the difference of grazing versus non-grazing treatments on the vegetation. The data was clear; there was no statistically significant difference between grazed versus un-grazed plots. However, when he visited his plots he was only interested in the plants and had never spoken to the local people. If he had taken the time to talk to the cattle herders however, he would have discovered how grateful they were for his fenced plots every dry season. When there was no grass left anywhere else, they would lift the posts of his plots and let their cattle eat the grass that had been reserved there (they assumed) for times of need. His stakeholders could have explained his findings far more accurately than he could, if only he had taken the time to lift his gaze from the grass he was studying to the people who depended on it.

Becoming comfortable with uncertainty is a precaution against settling for simple answers, no matter how elegant or academically significant those answers might appear. We need to become comfortable enough with uncertainty to stay longer than we otherwise would, just wondering. The longer we look, the more likely we are to identify our assumptions and over-simplifications, ask better questions and get more holistic answers. We need to amplify and sit with our uncertainty for long enough to appreciate the complexity of the systems we study, and weave that complexity into our research.

This brings me to the second reason I think it is so important to become comfortable with uncertainty as leaders. There is a direction to uncertainty that drives us forward, towards new ways of thinking that have the potential to solve problems that have previously been considered intractable. Uncertainty is by definition at the edge of our understanding, and for this reason, it fuels our curiosity. There is a restlessness about being uncertain that drives us to ask questions, to push beyond the edge of our current understanding. Some of us reach the cutting edge of our discipline and are content to stay there, refining our knowledge of the thing that first made our name, for the rest of our careers. However, embracing uncertainty enables us to know “enough” about that thing we discovered, so we can push beyond it. Now we can sit with the uncertainty of all the questions that we could keep asking about that one thing, and instead keep moving towards the next major frontier in understanding that lies beyond what we originally discovered. “Enough” in this case requires us to be sure that what we have discovered is based on rigorous research (the rangeland ecologist I met in Botswana could have sent himself on a wild goose chase had he tried to build a programme of research on his flawed finding). But if our research is on solid ground, then we need to allow uncertainty to flourish and draw us on into the unknown, if we want our research to continue pushing boundaries, and solve even bigger problems.

The poet, John Keats, considered the ability to sit with uncertainty to be an important skill, which he described as “negative capability”. This skill was at the heart of his creative process, and as such, I believe we can learn much from him as researchers. In keeping with Keats’ approach, I will describe this as a metaphor.

Imagine standing in a field and looking out to the horizon. You can see what looks like the sea, but it is clear that there is a cliff at the edge of the farmland, and you are curious to see over the edge. However, there are fences and patches of thorn bushes at the edge of the fields that you have to get through first. If the cliff is the cutting edge of your discipline, some researchers never get there because they are unable to gain the basic competencies needed to climb the fences, or because they get distracted by the interesting but ultimately minor challenge of the thorn bushes, and settle down in a comfortable patch next to them to study their ecology. If the farmland represents what is currently known, then others never reach the edge because they realise they don’t need to go there. They have all they need right here, and they focus their careers on learning how to cultivate and use existing knowledge to feed others.

Here, I need to pause for an uncomfortable truth. Most of the problems in the world can be solved with existing knowledge, if we could just make it accessible to the right people and enable them to use it to address the challenges they face. Resources, political will and other factors are often more important barriers to impact than lack of knowledge. For this reason, I think we need to all regularly come back from the cutting edge to ask what can be done with what we already know, and we need to build teams that include specialists in cultivating the rich deposits of knowledge we already have, whether they be knowledge exchange fellows, knowledge brokers, consultants, impact officers or entire organisations dedicated to using the knowledge we already have.

As researchers, however, there will always be the lure of that cliff edge; to see what is just beyond our sight. And it is this that makes research impact different to other forms of evidence-based impacts. You have the potential to solve problems that have never been addressed, and to create opportunities that have never been imagined, through the generation of new knowledge. Yes, you have a responsibility to make your research accessible and usable by companies who could commercialise your work, by Governments who could use your work to develop better policies and by third sector organisations who could use your work to help those they seek to serve. But you also have a responsibility to be a researcher, and that means you must never stop being curious.

As a result, over many years of training and hard work, clambering over fences and finding your way through brambles, you come to the cutting edge of your discipline, and look over the edge of the cliff. At this point, it may be tempting to congratulate yourself and take a well-earned break. You can dangle your legs over the edge with your seminal book in your lap, or you can look for tiny flowers in the closely grazed turf you are sitting on, and start studying the ecology of the cliff edge. The challenge however, if you want to find answers to previously intractable questions, is to step off the cliff edge, into the unknown. Fortunately, you have not come unprepared. You have ropes and a harness, which are your theory, methods and training. But you don’t know if they will hold in this new, uncharted part of your journey. That is why it takes real courage to take that first step over the edge, into the unknown. All of your instincts will tell you to climb back up onto solid ground, and your colleagues who are comfortably inhabiting the cliff edge are likely to call you back. Some will do so because they genuinely fear for your sanity and reputation, others because you are threatening their position on the cutting edge.

You look down but the bottom of the cliff is obscured by mist. Nevertheless, you descend and as you do so, you realise that there is an overhang. From this perspective, you can see that some of the researchers working at the edge are in fact standing on unstable ground as the sea has undermined the rock they believed they were standing on. As you hang there, in mid-air, you have to fight the urge to retreat to the apparent safety of the clifftop, but you cannot unsee the overhang. And so you continue to lower yourself into the mist, believing that you will eventually either reach the solid rock of the cliff again or the beach below. But the descent feels like it is going on forever. As you pause to rest your muscles, you look up and realise you can no longer see the top. All you can see in every direction is white mist and it is completely silent. It feels like you are hanging in nothingness. After some time, you begin to forget that there were people working somewhere above you, or even what they were doing. All you can think about is when you will reach the bottom and what you will find there. But the point is that you don’t know.

Becoming comfortable with uncertainty is deciding to just hang there a little longer, feeling what it is like to be suspended in space, dangling your legs, looking for shapes in the whiteness, thinking and eventually just being in that place. Only in that place in between the world of the clifftop and the beach do you have the space to really question your assumptions. Perhaps most of the ground you previously thought solid, was in fact unstable? Perhaps there won’t be a beach at the bottom, but a ravine or some other land? To fully engage in uncertainty, sometimes it is more important to unlearn than to learn. And it is in this liminal space, holding lightly everything we learned to reach the edge of understanding, that we are most likely to realise something truly original.

At this point, Keats uses the metaphor of a room, so let us imagine that you descend to the bottom of the cliff into Keats’ room rather than onto the beach you initially expected. The room is white, with white walls and floor, and the white mist above would look like a white ceiling, were it not for your rope fading into the eaves. Gradually you begin to perceive the outline of multiple doors on each wall. You are curious to know what lies behind the doors, so you approach the nearest one and open it. It leads to another white room lined with doors, and you keep opening doors until you find a room with a luminous object on a small pedestal in the centre of the room. The object is original thought. But it is white, like the rest of the room, and when you look away, you find it hard to locate again. Perhaps you imagined it? There are doors lining this room too. Perhaps you should keep trying new doors? The secret, says Keats, is to get comfortable and sit, looking at the object for long enough for it to reveal itself. After some time, you may realise that what you are looking at isn’t as original, beautiful or useful as you first imagined, but instead of moving to the door, you need to stay, perhaps moving your position to look at it from a different angle. With sufficient curiosity and attention, you eventually understand what you are looking at, and what its value might be. At that point, the temptation is to describe it, write about it and tell the world, but instead you move towards it and pick it up, turning it in your hand, tapping it, testing it, experimenting with it. Only then do you place it back on its pedestal and call up to others to descend the rope and come and look at what you’ve found.

There is a slowness about Keats’ creative process that contrasts starkly with the race to find answers that we are so often drawn into in academia. With the right theory and methods, we can usually find answers of some sort, but rarely will they be the original ideas we need to answer unanswerable questions or address intractable challenges. The world needs good ideas like never before, and it is our job as leaders to facilitate the discovery of ideas that are both robust and original. If we want to come up with new ideas that can actually change the world, we need to start by loosening our grip on certainty. In doing so, we are able to listen more deeply to the nuances and complexities our stakeholders can see that might just challenge what we thought we knew to be certain. If we respond with curiosity, rather than retreating to the safety of our ivory tower, we might become comfortable enough with uncertainty for it lead us to some of the greatest discoveries of our careers.

Rather than seeing being uncertain as a weakness, I believe that the ability to embrace and work with uncertainty is a sign of mastery in leadership. When you are starting out, you follow protocols and instructions, and often come unstuck when unexpected things happen, as they inevitably do. But an expert thrives on the uncertainty of new situations, using their extensive knowledge and experience to make decisions with confidence under conditions of uncertainty, adapting as they go to secure the necessary outcomes. Being comfortable with uncertainty is a sign of a mature leader who is able to embrace complexity and make empathic decisions, rather than opting for simple answers and retreating to the certainty of the tried and tested.

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