More Tolerance for Ambiguity and Uncertainty: One of Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders

Female kayaker paddling in whitewaterHow can we relax and have a genuine, passionate relationship with the fundamental uncertainty, the groundlessness of being human?

Pema Chödrön

In 1989, business scholar, Peter B. Vahil coined the phrase, “permanent white water” to describe the changing business environment. Vahil may have been foreseeing life in the 21st century in as the management and leadership literature recently adopted the military acronym, VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) to describe the global environment. Furthermore, management guru Gary Hamel frequently reminds his audiences that the “nature of change is changing.”

Consequently, a growing body of leadership literature emphasizes the importance for leaders to enhance their tolerance for uncertainty or ambiguity. For example, leadership scholars Ron Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky’s propose that adaptive leadership is critical given the reality of VUCA. Heifetz and his colleagues argue that “diagnostic failure” is at the root of humanity’s inability to solve our most pressing challenges. They argue that leaders are approaching humanity’s unprecedented global challenges as technical challenges, challenges with knowable solutions.

However, as evident in the repeated failure of technical solutions, the challenges humanity faces are adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges are beyond current individual and collective knowledge, capacity, and expertise. Therefore, they require higher psychological maturity, as well as capacities and competencies that many, if not most, leaders have not yet developed.

This developmental gap makes leaders and the organizations they lead vulnerable to costly missteps, performance declines, and legitimacy losses. While the literature purporting the necessary competencies for effective global leadership is vast, three comprehensive categories, highly related to the capacity to tolerate uncertainty, frequently emerge: perception management, relationship management, and self-management. Furthermore, a growing body of mindfulness scholars have indicated positive correlations between these three comprehensive categories and MBIs which my research on mindful leaders supports.

And I think in the past I probably would have made a much quicker perhaps more decisive decision in the moment and not embraced that time of interim or uncertainty. So I think mindfulness allowed me to do that and to say ‘it’s okay not to have all the answers right now,’ and let it kind of be. (Male middle manager in the health care industry)

I think embracing that sense of adventure, that sense of adventure and sometimes adrenaline that I had been avoiding [with] people sometimes …because I associated it with maybe danger or risk, but now being much more comfortable living on that leaning-toward perspective as opposed to kind of leaning on the safe side of the fence. (Male middle manager in the health and wellness industry)

Thus, mindful leaders experience a growing tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity which supports them not only in their work roles but in all areas of their lives. The VULA environment appears to be here to stay for the foreseeable future, perhaps intensifying.  Thus, the critical decision we each face is whether we will attempt to navigate the white waters of our lives in the boats we have or start building stronger boats.

 

This essay is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders with an expected publication of October-November 2018.

Greater Inner Calm and Peace: One of Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders

There is a criterion by which you can judge whether the thoughts you are thinking and the things you are doing are right for you. The criterion is: Have they brought you inner peace? Peace Pilgrim

Pink lotus flower on a pondWhile the term spiritual is used in different ways, I often use the term to refer to a sense of relatedness or connectedness to others, life, and all that is and ever shall be (i.e., God, Spirit, Source, Allah, etc.). Also, my use of the term spiritual includes finding meaning and purpose in a way that contributes or benefits others or life beyond the self.

Cindy Wigglesworth, in her 2014 book, SQ 21: The 21 Skills of Spiritual Intelligence, expands this working definition to include a sense of inner calm and peace regardless of circumstances, internal or external while also having a sense of relatedness to life in all its diverse expressions. Wigglesworth proposed that spiritual intelligence (SQ), along with intelligence quotient (IQ), emotional intelligence (EQ), and physical/kinesthetic intelligence, is a core intelligence for living a healthy and fulfilling life in the 21st century.

Wigglesworth’s proclamation about the essential nature of SQ in the 21st century is highly significant for individual leaders and organizations given that the topic of spirituality is often undiscussable in the work environment. Interestingly, the mindful leaders in my 2015 study identified the dimension of SQ, greater inner calm and peace, as well as the increased capacity to tolerate uncertainty (Theme 10) as a result of their mindfulness practice as demonstrated in the following narratives.

It’s interesting, through a downsizing, I started practicing (mindfulness meditation) formally, approximately 2, 2 and a half years ago, almost 3. In the middle of that time period, we had a major reshuffle or reorganization by my employer, so my role expanded in size by about 40 to 50% of what it was previously. So we had two smaller departments, the two were merged and became one super department. We still had the same amount of hours in a day to get the work done, still the same amount of limited resources, however, I found that that through mindfulness I’m able to better handle and focus on the different tasks that are coming at me at any given time. I’m able to free my mind to keep that calm atmosphere and a particular focus on the paths [projects] given, and I’m also able to complete more tasks in a more timely manner. (Male middle manager working in higher education in New Zealand)

I think too there’s a sense of peace you get when you meditate. It really is a stress reducer and anxiety reducer. And, I don’t know if you [have to] do (experience) that necessarily….but it’s a really nice byproduct that I think allows you to be a better leader. (Female middle manager and marketing researcher)

Oh, there is a much bigger sense of calm for me because there is time. There isn’t as much frantic energy being expended. It is a lot more–softer. It’s not a hard push. There is an acceptance, a peace around it that I know the resolution will come. Let’s just give it the time and the opportunity and staying with it. (Female senior manager in information technology).

Perhaps, we can borrow from Peace Pilgrim’s quote at the beginning of this essay and extrapolate that the criterion by which you can determine if a developmental practice is right for you is: Has it brought you greater inner calm and peace? For the 20 mindful leaders in this 2015 study, the answer is yes and perhaps unbeknownst to them, all the while cultivating spiritual intelligence!

 

Note: This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders by Denise Frizzell, Ph.D. Denise offers leader/leadership and organizational coaching and consulting for progressive change agents and organizations. Visit https://metamorphosisconsultation.com/schedule-a-coaching-appointment/  to schedule a FREE exploratory appointment.