How to Lead with Certainty in Uncertain Times

How can you be so sure?

When times become uncertain, people look for leaders who seem to know what to do.  Those who speak with certainty tend to attract those who are less sure.

But not everyone who acts certain really knows what they are doing, and misplaced confidence could lead us deeper into trouble.  How can we tell who we should follow?  More importantly, how can we lead with certainty when facing the unknown?  Some thoughts for you.

How to Lead with Certainty in Uncertain Times

Road Closed

Let’s say we’re driving home along the route we always take.  About half way there, at a familiar four-way intersection, we come upon an unfamiliar sign:  Road Closed.  Uncertainty has reared its head.

In the passenger seat is our leader.  He has to decide what to do, and then we have to decide whether or not to do as he says. 

We just want to get home, so what we’re looking for is confident direction.  It would be nice if he would just immediately bark:  “Turn left,” “Turn right,” or even “Ignore that sign and floor it.” 

How to lead with certainty - Road Closed SignThen all we have to do is comply.  So long as they are right, we may get home in time for dinner afterall.  But if they’re wrong, we could go plummeting off the abutment where the bridge used to be.  

Here’s the thing:  research tells us that even though they may act confident, they might not have a clue.

Don’t Be So Sure

For example, there’s a kind of cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect.  The general idea is that people who aren’t very good at something tend to overestimate their ability to do it.   The least competent people tended to be the most overconfident.

That may be why 73% of drivers consider themselves to be better than average, yet 90% of crashes involve human error.  The worst of us don’t see that we might be part of the problem.

I think that concept extends beyond physical skills.  There’s a great quote attributed to Aristotle:

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know. - Aristotle Click To Tweet

The converse of Aristotle’s observation is essentially,  “The less you know, the more you think you know.”  Dunning-Krueger. 

So when someone claims to be categorically certain about something, it may sound reassuring, and we may be tempted to follow.  But it might also be a good idea to pause and ask ourselves, how can they be so sure?   

Is it because they truly know what they are doing?  Or could it be because they don’t know enough to know any better?

And how can we tell the difference?

Pausing to Ask

A few simple questions can help us distinguish between confident ignorance and sure certainty.  And we can use these as a guide for our own actions to help others feel confident in our ability to lead with certainty during uncertain times.

Acknowledge uncertaintyDo they act as if they know everything, or are they willing to admit they might not have all the answers? Beware people who claim to know exactly what to do in uncertain times.  The leaders to trust are those who are willing to publicly recognize the limits of their knowledge.

The less people know, the more stubbornly they know it. - Rajneesh Click To Tweet

Be humbleIs it about “me” or “we?”  If their words and actions seem to be more about protecting status or building ego, think twice.  Their priority systems may be skewed towards their personal interests and their minds may be closed to the best courses of action. 

Coming from a place of humility opens the door that enables us to learn, and helps us see the best course of action for the team.  The goal is not to be the person who was right, it’s to find the answer that is right. 

Humility will open your mind to learning in the same way that ego will stunt your growth. – Jodie Browning Click To Tweet

Ask questions.   Are they shouting orders or asking questions?  Jumping into action before truly understanding the problem is a recipe for trouble.  Good leaders use available time to ask questions that help them understand the problem they face before making decisions about what to do.

It isn't that they cannot find the solution. It is that they cannot see the problem. - G.K. Chesterton Click To Tweet

Share knowledgeAre they just saying, “Trust me,” or are they telling you what they know?  Confident leaders are willing to share what they know, and encourage others to share their knowledge so that the whole team benefits from the collective wisdom.  Leaders seek knowledge symmetry, not asymmetry.

It is good to rub, and polish our brain against that of others. - Michel Eyquem de Montaigne Click To Tweet

Don’t guarantee anythingDo they claim to know the outcome, or are they willing to share their doubts?  We may prefer to hear that “everything is going to be OK,” but what we deserve from our leaders is unvarnished reality.  Winston Churchill led Great Britain through the darkest days of World War II.  He didn’t pretend everything was going to be OK; he didn’t even guarantee that Britain would survive the war.  He leveled with his people and trusted them with the truth:

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. – Winston Churchill Click To Tweet

The answers to these questions will help us decide if we should follow someone, and how we, ourselves, can lead more effectively in uncertain times. 

But there are some times when we can lead with certainty no matter what is happening.

Selectively Certain

When action is required.  If the house is on fire, whether people exit the house through the back door or the front is less important than just getting them out of the house.  When time is compressed, and inaction is a sure path to disaster, generally doing something, anything, is better than doing nothing.  Make a decision, even an imperfect one, and carry it out boldly.

When you truly are an expert.  If we really are the smartest people in the room in a specific area, then this is a good time to spread that confidence by sharing what we know.  Use the available time to explain and educate teammates on what gives us that certainty and why a given course of action is the best.  But don’t forget to stay humble.  Expertise in one area does not confer expertise in all areas.

Beware the expert. Expertise in one area does not confer expertise in all areas. Click To Tweet

When values are on the line.  When ethical issues arise, don’t hesitate.  If we really believe in that values poster on the conference room wall, then not only do we need to live by it, but everyone else needs to see us leading by it, too. 

The longer a poor ethical option remains on the table, the more our teammates may view it as a viable alternative, and the faster we'll find ourselves driving towards the cliff. Click To Tweet

Lead With Certainty – The Takeaway

Back in the car at that intersection, I’m watching my leader and asking myself these questions.  If he’s falsely confident, the answers will help me see through the smoke screen.

If he humbly admits he’s not certain, he’ll have my respect.  If he asks me what I know, checks the map and GPS, contacts friends to see what they can share, and doesn’t make any sweeping promises about things he can’t control, I’ll be more inclined to listen. 

And then, after he’s done these kinds of things, if he says with certainty, “Let’s take this left.  I don’t know if the traffic will be any worse or the road any better, but that looks like the best route to take,” I’d follow that guy.

Lead On!


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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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