Leading Edge: Dare to Doubt

In 1977 I gave a talk at the Harvard School of Education that forever changed the way I think about leadership. At the time I was president of the University of Cincinnati, a position that forced me to put all my theories about leadership to the test. During the question-and-answer period that followed my speech, Dean Paul Ylvisaker asked me a life-altering question: “Warren, do you really love being president of the University of Cincinnati?” I was stunned into silence. As university president, I was so busy trying not to be overwhelmed that I had never really thought about whether I loved it or not. After a long silence, I mustered the only honest answer: “I don’t know.”

I realized then that I loved being university president, but I didn’t love doing the job. A few months later, I decided to step down and become a faculty member once again—life is too short for anything but work you love. I also found myself thinking more and more about the unexpected power of the phrase, “I don’t know.” The conventional wisdom is that leaders must be certain at all costs; better to be wrong than perceived as weak or wishy-washy. But if you accept the premise that the world has changed in fundamental ways, if only because of new technology and globalization, then it follows that leaders must change as well. And crucial to that change is the willingness to embrace uncertainty.

I am not advocating the kind of uncertainty that induces paralysis. There are times when leaders must act and they must be willing to accept responsibility for their actions, whatever doubts they harbored before making a choice. What I am proposing—with apologies to physicist Werner Heisenberg—is an uncertainty principle for leaders. This principle recognizes that today, even the wisest leader can’t know everything and, as a corollary, that most executive decisions should be regarded as subject to thoughtful revision, not written in stone. The leader who embraces this principle and dares to doubt has an entire panoply of strengths that the traditional, reflexively adamant leader lacks, strengths that have never been more important than they are today.

Among those who recognize the value of uncertainty for today’s leaders is University of Michigan psychologist Karl E. Weick. In his essay, “Leadership as the Legitimation of Doubt,” Weick argues that most absolute convictions ill-serve leaders in a world in which the only constant is relentless change. It is far better to say, “I don’t know,” and defer action than to make a decision that puts the organization on the wrong course. In Weick’s terms, today’s leadership is more about “sensemaking” than about rules and decisions. As I interpret Weick, “sensemaking” includes articulating a vision for the organization and setting a direction and moral tone. It also means being willing to shift course as circumstances change while still doing what is right and what is best for the organization.

In this new world, the leader is neither all-knowing nor all-powerful but needs all the help he or she can get—and asks for it. Rank is of little or no relevance in navigating this new reality. Instead, the leader relies on experts, from inside, from outside, wherever they are. Rather than leading by fiat, such leaders abandon the pretense of certainty and admit: I don’t know what to do, but let’s find out together.

One great strength of uncertainty (and it must be deployed judiciously—say, to buy time for more reflection on a matter of great importance, not every time a leader faces a hard choice) is that it welcomes people other than the leader into the decision-making process. When a leader has the strength to show uncertainty, others in the group are invited to collaborate, routinely producing better decisions than those made unilaterally. And when group members participate in the decision-making process, they inevitably have a greater stake in the outcome.

Another strength of admitting, “I don’t know” is that it creates an atmosphere that legitimizes collecting more information—and current data is always better than the outdated kind. And the leader who says, “I don’t know” has yet another enormous advantage over one who stakes his or her reputation on a particular position. He or she can retreat from a policy or stance that has become untenable. Where there is no certainty, there is nothing to defend. Instead of clinging to what worked in the past, the leader can look for solutions that are more likely to meet the new demands of the future.

If uncertainty is so powerful, then why don’t more leaders embrace it? The primary reason is that uncertainty has historically been seen as an unseemly, even shameful quality in a leader. We still think of decisiveness as a hallmark of authentic leadership, however anachronistic heroic certitude may be. The leader who seems to vacillate, however briefly and appropriately, risks being seen as flawed—lacking the forcefulness that a military model of leadership has made the king of virtues. Our values have not yet caught up with our changed reality. We still tend to confuse action with strength and even courage.

Because we so stigmatize indecision, few leaders ever admit to doubt, except in after-the-fact accounts and autobiographies. Often at this point in a column, I will illustrate my thesis with examples from contemporary business, but I can’t think of a single business leader who is brave enough to publicly acknowledge ever doubting for a moment his or her chosen course. And yet doubt is usually the most intelligent response in a world often on the edge of chaos. As a distinguished CEO said to me in private: “If you’re not confused, you don’t know what’s going on.”

Fortunately, Weick has done research on firefighters, who are more willing than corporate executives to own up to uncertainty. They offer insight into the enormous power of prudent uncertainty, especially when the stakes are high and the situation fluid. Such insights are especially timely in light of the fires that scorched Southern California in October.

Long before the recent disaster, Weick interviewed Paul Gleason, a legendary firefighter. Gleason understands the power of waiting and collecting data rather than taking a stand, which then has to be defended, whatever the cost. Firefighters who refuse to abandon a position often end up dead. Instead, the essence of firefighting is collecting and acting upon ever-changing data—information that literally shifts as the wind blows. When Gleason is battling a blaze, he may make 80 percent of the firefighters lookouts; only 20 percent may actually fight the fire. The team also has to be ready to abandon whatever it is doing at a moment’s notice, however successful its approach may have been in the past. Although it seems counterintuitive, firefighters learn to drop their firefighting tools without hesitation. The weight of the same equipment that was a life-saver moments ago may become a deadly encumbrance when the wind shifts.

“I don’t know, but let’s find out” doesn’t enhance the appearance of a leader’s being in charge, and incertitude can torpedo the career of an executive whose bosses don’t appreciate its value. But uncertainty can pay off enormously in terms of nimbleness and adaptation, essentials for survival in a changing world.

Embracing uncertainty is powerful for many reasons—it encourages inclusiveness; respect for expertise, whomever it comes from; and a willingness to look for answers instead of defending current positions. But its ultimate power lies in the recognition that what is known is less important than what is next. That, plus the genuine courage that leaders show when they drop the self-serving mask of omniscience and omnipotence and admit, “I don’t know.”

Warren Bennis is a Distinguished Professor of Business at USC and Chairman of Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership. His most recent book is Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (Harvard Business School Press).

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