Two Strategies for Leading Through Chaotic Situations from Two of America's Most Legendary Military Leaders
It's vital for leaders to understand both their own and their team's tolerance for uncertainty, and to have a set of principles for addressing it.
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Leadership is about making decisions and guiding teams to achieve common goals, but what happens when the path forward is not clear? How do leaders provide direction in situations where ambiguity reigns? These are questions that must be considered, as uncertainty is a common and often unavoidable part of the success equation.
What is ambiguity?
Broadly speaking, this word refers to a lack of clarity or certainty and can produce confusion or doubt, often because people offer multiple interpretations and options. In leadership, it can arise from a lack of information, conflicting goals and/or a rapidly changing environment.
The first step in navigating ambiguous situations is to understand your own tolerance for them. Some people are naturally better at handling uncertainty, while others struggle. It's additionally vital to understand the tolerance of team members, as it can greatly affect their ability to perform. To gauge this, apply techniques such as personality assessments, 360-degree feedback or by simply asking for their opinions. By understanding the tolerance of a group, you can tailor communication and provide it with the support they need to thrive.
A vicious cycle
Lack of clarity can lead to a vortex of anxiety, stagnation and finger-pointing. When people are unclear about roles, responsibilities and expectations, they could become paralyzed — they might look productive on the surface but are really treading water. And when confronted with a lack of progress, they might point back to that lack of clarity, which only perpetuates the cycle.
However, not everyone is affected in the same way. Some prefer to take a more autonomous approach — filtering ambiguity through their own goals and processes. These individuals are often more comfortable with uncertainty, as they regard it as an opportunity to exercise innovative thinking.
Related: Addressing the Stress of Uncertainty
"Flat-ass rules": A path to clarity
As leaders, it's essential to have a set of basic principles that supersede just about everything else. Retired Marine General and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis advises leaders to have a set of "flat-ass rules" in every situation. At the highest level, these rules are your values, but as you move down the chain into specific situations, they become more detailed.
To generate yours, ask some key questions:
• What are we trying to achieve as a team?
• How does this fit into our larger strategy?
• Which aspects are in my control, and which aren't?
• What is the smallest unit of progress that will keep things moving forward?
Decision-making to model: General Eisenhower
A great example of a leader who brought clarity to a chaotic situation is General Dwight D. Eisenhower. As Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, he was responsible for overseeing the planning and execution of the D-Day invasion. The situation was highly uncertain, with many unknown factors, including weather, the enemy's strength and capabilities and the state of the Normandy beaches.
Despite a great deal of uncertainty, the then-54-year-old provided clear guidance and direction to his troops. He maintained open lines of communication and ensured that all units involved in the operation were working together. His vital decisions included delaying the invasion due to unfavorable weather conditions, a move that ultimately contributed greatly to its success.
Eisenhower's leadership during that world-changing event is a testament to the power of clarity in uncertain situations. By staying focused on goals and communicating effectively with troops, he was able to lead the Allied Forces to victory and pave the way for the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.
One lesson we can learn from this is to never be afraid to better define organizational parameters while tackling any challenge. As you move forward, even in the dark, communicate up and down the chain of command, sharing information about progress, questions and concerns… just keep moving forward.
Life is complicated, and we never have perfect clarity, so it's up to us to create it out of thin air by filtering everything through our guiding principles, asking questions and communicating as we go.