Strong leaders are known to pull people together by sharing with them a compelling vision of the future and sticking to their guns about it. Yet, any one future is only probabilistic. We cannot imagine a general exhorting the troops to battle with “There’s a 30% chance of failure in this mission but let’s give our best.” So how do leaders navigate the realities of a probabilistic world?
Some leaders pare down the contingencies in their decisions and broadcast only one narrative. The full picture that they see in their minds is not always what they share. They are strategic liars. And once they convey their position, they stick to it so as to not appear indecisive, even when circumstances may warrant a change.
Others place open-mindedness over decisiveness. These leaders are in the habit of asking team members where they may be wrong, to the point of appearing confused to anyone watching. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed leaders are susceptible to this leadership track.
In evaluating leadership styles, we tend to ascribe moral correctness to one over the other. Yet, an assertive leader may simply view decisiveness as the means to earn the respect of their team, and may be in private open to changing their mind. Or an open-minded leader may seek opinion because they don’t believe in their own ability to parse a complex situation. Much of what we see in a leader is a function of the leader’s skillset, before it is about their moral correctness.
The best leaders demonstrate something called integrative complexity. It is the ability to consider competing perspectives on a subject while defining boundary conditions under which they hold.
Consider a friend who rushes to your aid during an emergency but forgets about you otherwise. That the friend is reliable or not are two competing perspectives here. The answer may be in understanding the conditions under which your friend is most cooperative. During exigencies your friend feels truly valued much more than at any other time. It could be a center-of-attention problem. As long as you can make this friend the center of attention, it is likely that they will be there for you. Answering the question of whether your friend is reliable is less important than understanding the conditions for their reliability.
An integratively complex leader may commit to a decision while having contingency plans for scenarios A or B or C. This may seem like not committing but should circumstances remain unchanged, they’re unlikely to be swayed into reconsidering their decision.
As a leader there’s less distinction in staying the course or switching than there is in truly understanding the factors that should guide decision-making.