The business world endures incredible amounts of complexity, anxiety, and stress as it speeds toward an uncertain future. Converging technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, blockchain, nanotechnology, robotics, genetic engineering, and now 4D printing (yes, we’ve now progressed beyond 3D printing) collide with cultural, social and generational changes that entail serious reality distortion. It’s as if one were looking through a kaleidoscope changing views at speeds barely visible to the naked eye. Just as you start to appreciate a particular view, it instantly morphs into something else. It’s why an IBM survey showed that most people in leadership doubt their ability to manage complexity.[i]
It doesn’t help anybody for leaders to doubt themselves, and a state of permanent leadership doubt isn’t sustainable. How do we extricate ourselves from this current state of paralyzing anxiety and doubt? There are two approaches that make sense.
First, simply recognize that we’re not the first generation to experience doubt, and we won’t be the last. The acronym of the day is VUCA, meaning volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The simple fact is that we’ve always lived in a VUCA world, and always will. We’ll need to adapt to change as human beings always have. Imagine the VUCA when perhaps half the world’s population was wiped out by the Black Death in the Middle Ages, only to soon enjoy the greatest Renaissance the world had ever seen, with explosive growth in literature, science, and the arts. As Bernard Malamud put it, “Life is a tragedy full of joy.” C’est la vie.
Second, appreciate and embrace the inherent tensions of leadership. Organization theorists call these tensions polarities, and it’s the job of every leader to identify, accept, and manage them. There are numerous polarities present in every organizational landscape, and to ignore them and their paradoxical nature is a serious breach of leadership responsibility. There are likely tensions between freedom and accountability, innovation and execution, short-term and long-term, and many others. The key is to recognize polarities, optimize the benefits, and minimize the costs.
Philosopher Peter Koestenbaum asserts that it’s the job of every leader to manage polarities productively while effectively managing anxiety. His simple, clear leadership model consists of four polarities, contrasting courage (focus on self) with ethics (focus on others), and reality (present state) with vision (future state).[ii]
When leaders understand that polarities are unavoidable, and that they have the freedom and responsibility to calibrate their focus in response to the antipodal terrain, they can summon the energy to address challenges and opportunities with candor, courage, and confidence.