At first, it seems like much ado about nothing. The walk down the twisting corridor leading from the light outside into the darkness inside is surprisingly comfortable. Up until this point, visitors of this strange attraction don’t seem to be fazed. But when the door suddenly slams shut, when the silence and darkness take over entirely, their calmness begins to waver. Although their behaviors vary, people usually react in either of two ways: those who feel disoriented and unsure, who stoop, grope the walls, chatter non-stop or laugh uncontrollably; and then there are those not disturbed by the uncertainty of the darkness, who proceed step by step down the corridor with increasing curiosity.
The mysteriously dark corridor is the first stage of an experiential business workshop called Dialogue in the Dark. The workshop is an initiative of the social venture by the same name, which operates all over the world. In Israel, it is led by organizational psychologist and former military man, Alon Shalit, and Meir Matityahu, Dialogue in the Dark’s visually impaired guide. Above all, it is a powerful metaphor for situations governed by uncertainty, and as such, it offers a unique and transformative learning experience for leaders of all kinds, business executives in particular.
I had the pleasure of joining several groups of executives through this workshop. One thing that struck me was how familiar the experience of darkness was to me compared to my oversees companions. As most Israelis who served in the army would tell you, soldiers, team leaders especially, are no strangers to uncertainty. In fact, having to grope your way through that dark corridor relying mostly on your instincts is part of every night land navigation. But being acquainted with uncertainty is not enough to master it, and in the military, just as in business, some leaders are better at it than others.
Three characteristics of leaders who handle uncertainty better than others consistently stand out during these workshops. These can just as easily apply to a CEO navigating an ever-changing business climate as they can for a military commander leading her company back to camp. Different situations, same skills.
- Leaders who can handle uncertainty are not afraid to pose questions. People who act in blind confidence are usually concerned about losing control, and their need to provide an immediate solution merely intensifies an already stressful situation. On the other hand, leaders who invite their subordinates and colleagues to pitch in ideas before settling on a course of action are much more likely to find a creative and suitable solution to the problem. More importantly, a leader who is honest with her team about her level of uncertainty would gain a more engaged and loyal team.
- The ability to self-reflect and criticize is crucial at times of uncertainty. Executives who are capable of conducting critical introspection can better differentiate events which were out of their control and events in which they could have done better. Expressions such as ‘the situation was too complex’, ‘we had data overload’ or ‘the task was unclear’, are unlikely to generate any valuable lessons for future decision making. On the other hand, ‘I should have delegated tasks to others rather than trying to do it all myself’ provides a much stronger foundation for growth. Only when they distinguish circumstances from actions can leaders learn and develop themselves and their teams.
- Good leaders embrace the fact that our reality is complex. People who formulate a dichotomous perception of reality tend to construct a false certainty, in which they maintain a sense of knowing. This leads to automatic working assumptions, which can have severe if not catastrophic results. In military navigation, for example, insecure leaders tend to impose their subjective perception onto an objective situation. It is not uncommon for them to force the field and the map to coincide, even when there are clear indicators of discrepancies. This results in getting themselves and their squad completely lost. The more they insist, the more wrong turns they take, the farther they get from the goal. Translated to the business world, this behavior usually results in loss of precious time, funds and other resources, a frustrated team, and lost opportunities. In contrast, leaders who embrace a more complex perception of reality are more inclined to contain, reduce and manage the risks involved in an uncertain situation. They focus their efforts on validating their basic assumptions and asking questions. They might realize they made some mistakes along the way, but they’re the ones that will eventually navigate safely back to base.
Uncertainty is what makes navigation so difficult, be it through a dark room, an unknown terrain, or in business. At the same time, if it weren’t for uncertainty we wouldn’t have had the chance to be surprised, learn, and enjoy the unpredictability of life. The best leaders are those who embrace uncertainty, are not afraid to acknowledge it, and who never forget that they are not alone.