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Leading in Times of Doubt

July 01, 2005  |  by Mark G. Stainbrook - Also by this author

The inspiration for this column came from reading an article by Karl E. Weick, a well known scholar and writer on organizational theory and leadership. The article, "Leadership as the Legitimation of Doubt," focuses on how leaders can face challenging and unpredictable environments and succeed. He states, "It is the combination of thrown-ness, unknowability, and unpredictability that makes having some direction, any direction, the central issue for human being, and by implication, the central issue for leaders."

What I believe makes Weick truly special among writers on leadership is that he really breaks a problem down and gives the reader tools that can be used in daily leadership situations at all levels. He also challenges the reader to break through preconceived notions of leadership and think in creative ways. In my case, it was Weick's assertion that leaders who are used to making decisive decisions will have trouble dealing with unpredictable situations. I thought that was what leaders were supposed to do! I always thought that a leader who said, "I don't know," was worrisome, because I thought a leader was supposed to know. After all, isn't that why they are a leader?

But think about it this way: What happens when a decision is made? A decision can be entrenching. Even in a fluid situation, in stressful times people say things like, "Well, the decision has been made; we have to stick with it." Leaders have to defend their decisions and they can become intractable, even when it is obvious that the new situation dictates a new course. Ego often plays a part. Weick compares decisions to a map, because maps limit the routes you can take. The solution, according to Weick, is for leaders to practice what he calls "sensemaking." Sensemaking, he argues, is more comparable to a compass in which a leader plots a course, rather than a route. To say, "I don't know," is O.K. What a real leader says is, "I don't know, but let's you and I find out together."

There are times when I don't think I can restate something I have learned as well as the original author, and this is one of them, so consider the following quote from Weick's article:

"The effective leader is someone who searches for the better question, accepts inexperience, stays in motion, channels decisions to those with the best knowledge of the matter at hand, crafts good stories, is obsessed with updating, encourages improvisation, and is deeply aware of personal ignorance. People who act this way help others to make sense of what they are facing. Sensemaking is not about rules and options and decisions. Sensemaking does not presume that there are generic right answers about things like taking risks or following rules. Instead sensemaking is about trying to stay in touch with context."

What strikes me about this observation is that it is a truly human approach to leadership. It deals with a leader's relationship with people, their emotions, their frailties, their concerns, and their doubts. It is a fine summary of all the things a good leader worries about, but can handle with compassion, dignity, and respect, while still empowering his or her people to accomplish their mission. With an understanding of sensemaking, a leader can take on the unpredictability of the world and turn it around to set the conditions for success.

I highly recommend Weick's article, "Leadership as the Legitimation of Doubt," for anyone who is interested.

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