“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”

— Henry Ford

“Go as far as you can see; when you get there, you’ll be able to see farther.”

— J. P. Morgan

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

— Peter Drucker

“A leader is a dealer in hope.”

— Napoleon Bonaparte

“If you’re not sure where you are going, you’re liable to end up someplace else.”

— Robert F. Mager

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

— John F. Kennedy

There are lots of prescriptions out there for being a better leader but I don’t recall any that deal with a particularly common and important leadership situation: What to do when you don’t know what to do.

If you are a leader today, perhaps you have never encountered such a situation. You always brim with self-confidence and certainty regarding direction. That’s great! I’d like to meet you because I have never run across such a person.

Self-confidence and certainty will take you a long way but rarely if ever the full way. At some point along your way, what to do and where to head will not be at all evident.

Our COVID unpleasantness of recent times (and maybe forever) has probably given nearly all leaders a serious cause to pause in this respect.

Leadership ability, I have come to believe, is often tested and proven by situations that are fundamentally uncertain and especially difficult. Anybody can “lead” when the way to proceed is clear and inherently practical.

In many years of observing and working with leaders of nearly all persuasions and abilities, the way each one deals with the uncertain and difficult questions on direction has reliably given me a pretty good measure of their real leadership abilities.

Can such an ability be learned? Of course. How, you might ask?

Here are a few tips based on my experience in the field and under fire:

1. Fake it? Might work — worth a try

I have heard this one so many times, as you undoubtedly have as well. Mostly in jest, but I have seen it actually work in practice. Faking it works? Who knew?

Leaders are supposed to, well, lead. This generally means knowing where to lead and even upon occasion, why. Only if you have done a few laps as a leader will being in this situation at some point be familiar.

So-called “faking it” can however be a valuable approach as a way to buy time while the situation becomes a bit clearer. Not for long, since folks will eventually get wise, but the breather may be just what you need to get your ducks in a row (speaking technically).

2. Running off in all directions

This unfortunately is a pretty common practice among leaders. It bespeaks a lack of focus and priorities, which in turn flows from fundamental uncertainty about direction. Let’s “try everything we can think of” to see what works. Experiment, if you will.

You are probably as frightened by this approach as I am. It seems to be a default approach in many cases where a clear, preferable direction is simply absent. It typically goes along with the question: “Well, have you got any better ideas?”.

This approach also has an upside but only if you use it for learning, discovery. It aims at an innovative and practical solution that may emerge from a reasonably short period of broad experimentation.

You must be ready here to quickly kill any directions that appear weak in their early stages. What you are looking for is a set of directions that, if implemented in small steps and with minimal risk, can illuminate what seems to work. These are tests based on careful evaluation of just what to include in your “all directions” plan.

3. Should you admit to the troops that you don’t know?

People who have not fully enjoyed the vagaries and vicissitudes of leadership may counsel “of course, always” here. I think not.

Leaders above all need to maintain morale and momentum no matter how nasty the local world has become. You may well not presently have a clue about what to do but you need to keep things moving as best you can.

This is not the “faking it” ploy outlined above but instead another approach that buys vital breathing room while a good approach is developed or discovered. There are almost always a set of actions going forward (at least one hopes so) that are relatively clear and have minimal risk.

You don’t admit that you truly don’t know but instead move ahead confidently in more or less obvious directions while at the same time visibly pursuing some better ideas. This brings innovation and creativeness solidly into the game plan. Confidence-building in many cases.

4. Form a team or committee to study the problem

You will not be surprised that I don’t especially favor this approach in “I don’t know what to do” situations. This view is based on dozens of instances where the team-committee-task-force approach was implemented almost without further thought. It is just the way we do things, right?

Well, maybe used to do things but today is very different. The timeframe for thinking and decision-making has been greatly compressed. Methodically studying the situation, if done at all, probably has to be carried out in parallel with some kind of immediate action.

My recommendation in this case would be to move as quickly as possible but in small, low-risk steps. This process should provide rapid feedback on what may work and what looks like a sure loser. By all means study the situation as a side activity but the action on the ground is far more important.

5. Let’s vote on what to do

I could really go off on this one but I have seen it too often to dismiss it (along with appropriate snarling). Managers are supposed to manage. Leaders, to lead. Politicians, to rely on popular votes.

There are a couple of ways, however, where I recall seeing this often odious practice actually work.

The first is where the leader asks the team (or whatever) to propose a set of ideas on how to move forward with minimal risk of catastrophic outcomes. This rarely takes long to generate. Then the leader asks for a show of hands from those who favor each of the set of ideas. Some team members will vote for nearly all while others may vote for just one or none.

You will see the method in this madness now. The leader now knows where the greatest support lies and has a basis for probing deeper into some of the options that the leader favors. Of course, the leader may well have salted the option set with what the leader has pretty much decided to do anyway. A good leader will lead this process to a consensus on the leader’s favored direction. Surprise.

The second is where the leader lays out the favored approach and the outset and then asks for a vote on yes-no. This can lead to a very productive discussion on why some voted yes and why, no. Some really good ideas can flow from such discussion.

The leader may well have developed a straw man direction just to get the discussion going. Process facilitators like myself often employ such underhanded but effective tactics.

6. The answer in times of COVID

We have, like it or not, experienced and are probably continuing to experience, a time of great uncertainty and disruption. To put it mildly. Leaders who know the answer today are either rare, faking it, or perhaps a bit overconfident.

Each organization will have some kind of foundation machinery that can continue to function as in past until stopped or modified. Momentum rules. For too many today, however, this vital machinery has been virtually stopped or greatly crippled. Quick fixes like shifting to delivery and managing customer flow through facilities just buys time for the most part. Few are any sort of permanent answer.

COVID has turned out to be an ongoing disruption that makes any kind of permanence unlikely for some unforeseeable timeframe. This means in practice that there is no “answer” but instead a series of adaptations and tests. Small steps.

Our world may have become one of fast-moving, unpredictable, major change. Indefinitely.

Leaders sure do need answers today but the answer supply chain for many is seriously broken. Worse yet, today’s “answer” may not work well or at all as the situation changes. Which it will.

The truth seems to be that no leader today knows the answer to much of anything. Most will probably fake it or develop a blind optimism. A few leaders however will decide to face what appears to be our new reality (not normality) directly and constructively. This means that answers will be time-specific going forward.

7. Building your answer flow with organizational agility

Leaders who don’t know the answer today and who aren’t going to fake it or ignore it’s need are almost certain to adopt some kind of continuous adaption and innovation process.

This process is fundamentally based on the recognition of major and often rapid change as reality. Stability lives no more. The past is gone forever.

The need for an agile organization has never been greater. Decisions need to be made quickly by those in direct touch with customers, products, and other factors. My last post addressed this situation.

Big culture change is required here for most organizations of any size.

Hierarchical decision-making and structural stability no longer work. Agile, goal-driven, largely autonomous teams will drive organizations. Residual functions will shrink into vital core services that support the adaptive, innovative agile overlay.

Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things

To conclude, a quick reminder (via Peter Drucker) that managing and leadership are very different things. You can be a great manager but not at all an effective leader; you can be a great leader but a disaster as a manager. Being great at both is unfortunately not too common.

Bottom line:

In many years of observing and working with leaders of nearly all persuasions and abilities, the way each one deals with the uncertain and tough direction questions gives a pretty good measure of their real leadership abilities. Can such an ability be learned? Of course but is involves real, on-the-job learning. Outlined above are seven ways that you might consider as a learning process.

Forbes has a good article (from 2018) that lays out the value of organizational agility and how to get there: “Building Agile Organizations: Adapting Faster”:

“Many organizations feel the need to be thinner, faster, stronger, more adaptable, more profitable, etc. The right toolset to get them to that outcome may not be intuitive or singular. Building organizational agility is a solid approach to help organizations develop the capacity to perpetually evolve [emphasis added]. It enables them to accelerate their ability to sense and adapt to the volume, complexity and rate of change organizations face in the current environment. We believe business agility is comprised of four main elements: strategist leadership, nimble culture, lean principles and agile methods.”

“Change is accelerating across all sectors of organizational life largely driven by technology, geopolitical changes and strong academic research. This accelerating change in disparate sectors comes together to drive organizations to develop the capacity to perpetually evolve, often quickly, to set trends or respond to forces that are changing the market. While this volume and pace of change seem daunting, the most successful organizations are addressing it by developing organizational agility.”

“According to a January 2018 article in McKinsey Quarterly, “The urgency imperative places a premium on agility: it enables the shift to emergent strategy, while unleashing your people so they can reshape your business in real time. It’s also a powerful means of minimizing confusion and complexity in our world of rapid-fire digital communications where everyone can talk with everyone else — and will, gumming up the works if you don’t have a sensible set of operating norms in place. Agility is also the ideal way to integrate the power of machine-made decisions, which are going to become increasingly important to your fundamental decision system.””

The Business Agility Institute has a helpful picture of what needs to change in order to survive and grow under constant change: “Agile Strategy: Building adaptability into your organization’s DNA”:

“Most organizations are not structured for change. Top-down, command-and-control structures with organizational silos make it difficult to communicate across the organization. They operate within slow and bureaucratic stage-gate processes that filter information up to the executive level in order for the executives to make decisions and issue top-down orders. As information is filtered going up the decision-tree, valuable nuances are lost in the voice of the consumer, often replaced by internal objectives and targets that distract from the value proposition.”

“Governance is rules-based, and plan-driven: workers follow the plan, most often without understanding the intended outcomes. Leaders believe they can manage performance through oversight, but more oversight requires more rules (compliance requirements), adding more constraints and further hampering the organization’s ability to move fast and adapt. Likewise, leaders manage risks through even more oversight and analysis, again crippling organizational agility.”

“Being oversight-driven means undertaking projects with defined start and end dates, along with set budgets and scope. This serves to further illustrate the inadequacy of traditional thinking to address unprecedented and uncontrollable change. Change has always been a continuum, not an end-state to be reached. All we are witnessing now is the accelerating rate of change, which requires organizations to understand new circumstances and adjust or pivot faster. Agility was always a desirable business capability, but rapid and sudden change exposes how critical it is to organizational survival.”

“The existential question organizations must now confront is what kind of organization they need to become to remain sustainable (and resilient) over the long run, regardless of the day to day changes they must accommodate.”

Shelli Herman of Shelli Herman & Associates nicely summarizes the essentials of “Building an Agile Organizational Culture”:

“What organization in the world has not been going through sudden shifts from major, disruptive change? As I speak to my clients, everyone talks about how quickly things are shifting. Leaders with their eye on the ball always seem to worry about their organization’s ability to keep up! The two questions I hear most frequently are:

1. Are we changing as fast as the world around us?

2. Is our culture enabling us to be agile or is it slowing us down?”

“In agile cultures, there is a growth mindset of constant learning, trust, and permission to take risks in order to learn from these decisions, rather than a fixed mindset that creates a myopic focus on what has made the company successful in the past. I see organizational agility as the capacity to be infinitely adaptable without having to change the culture to allow that. Agile organizations strive to develop a built-in capacity to shift, flex, and adjust as circumstances change, either alone or with alliance partners, and to do so as a matter of course. Being infinitely adaptable is the key here and there’s really only one way to do that: create the culture that has the inbuilt capacity for agility.”

“Amazon is a strong example of an agile organization. It has morphed from a web-based bookseller to an online retail platform to a digital media powerhouse; they are one of the single most successful companies in the world and are the epitome of agility. Further, this continual change has taken place in the absence of a performance crisis, demonstrating an ability to envision changes and adapt instead of the reverse. In my view, this separates the good from the great.”

“Internal barriers—the culture—prevent organizations from being agile. These barriers include hubris; complacency; resistance to change; poor decision-making; lack of alignment around strategies, vision, and values; risk-averse mindsets; siloed thinking; and turf wars. Most executives have a sense of what agility means for their organization’s future. However, there is still a big gap between awareness of the need for agility and taking concerted action to become truly agile over the long-term. Creating a culture of agility is possible and should be the first strategic priority of senior leadership because it is the culture that spawns an organization’s ability to adjust in any direction and execute any strategy. Adapting to change, while good, is not a winning strategy for long-term success if you only adjust as the need arises. To be most productive, innovative, and successful, companies need to be agile. And that is something you need to bake into the cultural DNA with purpose and focus. What do you think? Is agility central to your organization’s success?”