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How to Lead in an Age of Ambiguity

Re-imagining the C-Suite

If there’s one thing most business leaders, investors and entrepreneurs can agree on, it’s that the world is changing faster than ever before. AI is transforming entire industries and professions; established incumbents succumb quickly to dynamic startups; and global, instantaneous communication means brands and reputations can be made – or broken – in a day. What word can adequately sum up this perfect storm of disruptive change? Ambiguity.

Today’s corporate leadership – the venerated “C-Suite” – has not been trained for an increasingly ambiguous world. Most MBA — Masters in Business Administration — degrees and leadership programs are predicated on teaching skills to grow and manage corporations that can be reliably controlled. This stems from its origins as a degree that historically focused on teaching skills to “administer,” with the built-in assumption that strategy and business can and should be controlled. In today’s world, it’s far more appropriate to think about the skills required to help us master business ambiguity.

Renowned anthropologist Grant McCracken noted in a Harvard Business Review article as early as 2013, “The corporation is a thing of people, processes, places, and products (give or take). And these 4 Ps are relatively well-defined, organized, boundaried, and anchored (more or less). But that’s a problem. This corporation is deeply at odds with the future. Because the future is never defined, organized, boundaried, or anchored. Really, it’s all just hints and whispers.” To put it more simply (and to focus more narrowly on leadership), the C-Suite thrives on certainty. But in our modern world, certainty is a currency in retreat.

So, how do leaders adapt in the age of ambiguity? The mindsets and models need to change. In this new reality, clarity needs to be prioritized over impossible certainty. Command and control needs to give way to questioning and collaboration. Analytical problem solving needs to blend with creative problem finding and experimentation.

This requires a fundamental reframing of how we think about leadership. It needs to be less a set of prized authoritative positions that command cascading authority, and more human capabilities and practices that are teachable, learnable and scalable.

What if we re-imagined the C-Suite as a collection of applied human capabilities that senior leaders modelled for the benefit of the entire organization? I call these key organizational capabilities the “The New C-Suite: Capabilities for Cultivating A Confident Future.” They are:

Curiosity: In an ambiguous world, lack of curiosity may be the fastest path to obsolesce. The organization that stifles the asking of questions and challenging of the status quo will lose any competitive edge it had, while the company whose leaders are permanently exploring new ground will dominate its industry.

Creativity: Creativity is an essential ingredient for innovation. Leaders must encourage employees at all levels to be restless thinkers driven by imagination and continues reframing of problems and possibilities.

Collaboration: In a world of constant change, it’s nearly impossible for any one leader to have all the answers. Leaders must constantly seek ideas, input and feedback from others, throughout the organization and beyond its boundaries.

Communication: In an increasingly noisy and complex world, communicating clearly and congruently is a critical skill. When uncertainty arises, lack of communication amplifies confusion and adds unnecessary friction. This doesn’t mean leaders need to manufacture solutions before the answer is clear. Rather, they should take time to articulate the strategic question at hand, the process for moving forward and the criteria for success. This focus on clear communication is essential for both internal channels and external audiences.

Culture: Finally – and perhaps most importantly – leaders must understand that these qualities do not begin and end with themselves. Instead, they will create the foundation for how leaders’ practices will be modeled and scaled throughout the organization. Leaders’ most important job is to forge a culture that sustains innovation and constant adaptation.

Mastering these skills takes considerable time and effort but doing so is increasingly urgent as our world continues to evolve. With practice, we can all be more creative, adaptive and future-focused leaders. In this leadership series, I will delve into each of these five capabilities and demonstrate how you can learn them, live them and use them to impact your organization for the better. 

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