How to be a more predictable leader in an uncertain world
By Randall P. White
I’ve studied, observed, and written much about ambiguity and uncertainty. In my book, Relax, It’s Only Uncertainty, I frame uncertainty as an opportunity for new ideas, bold action, and innovation.
People who manage uncertainty with less anxiety and distraction tend to be high performers. I’ve taught that embracing uncertainty is a skill to be learned and practiced.
However, leaders must bring a mode of certitude to their behavior. Predictable leadership is valued, appreciated, and respected by followers. On the other hand, making ourselves unpredictable to others may not make us “exciting” or “mavericks,” nor does it “keep people on their toes.” This more often creates chaos and erodes trust.
So yes, go forth into uncertainty, but be sure to bring your organization with you by practicing the leadership imperative for predictability.
Katia Savchuk, referencing the work of Robert I. Sutton and Hayagreeva Rao, cited predictability as one of the “Seven Hallmarks of Good Leadership in the Pandemic” published in Fast Company. Sutton and Rao, writing in McKinsey Quarterly, included “The protective powers of predictability” in their prescriptive writing on crisis leadership, “From a Room Called Fear to a Room Called Hope: A Leadership Agenda for Troubled Times.”
“Without predictability, people will be too scared not only to take risks but to take any actions at all. Life within an organization will become what it was for the solitary hunter: uncertain, brutish, and short.”– Howard H. Stevenson
How did we lose predictability?
Far back in 1995, Howard H. Stevenson published “The Power of Predictability” in Harvard Business Review. Still valid today, Stevenson’s article describes how, historically, humans sought out organizations to give their lives toiling in trades and agriculture a modicum of predictability. Corporate organization and guilds meant more reliable stability in earning a living.
Alas, management consulting after about 1950 helped throw this asunder
“Companies must recognize the paradox that many management tools in fact destroy what holds organizations together,” wrote Stevenson. “The discontinuities that so many current management practices introduce into people’s lives may not drive them mad, but they do encourage them to keep their résumés up to date and their commitments to their employers minimal.”
How can we balance the effective management tools that actually work with the now-constant uncertainty of the world, while also modeling certitude in leadership?
Achieving predictability as a leader can be approached as a set of simple behavioral guidelines under the category of integrity.
Ways to demonstrate “predictable”
Honesty – Telling the truth about situations — bad or good — so a reasonable person can set expectations.
Transparency – Guide work by metrics that are readily available to the organization and easily understood.
Communication – Tell people what’s going on. Proactively articulate and disseminate information in a way that keeps the organization up-to-date.
People in leadership too often overlook these fundamental behaviors, from Meta (Facebook and Instagram) to small companies and NGOs. Teams prefer predictability just as much as customers and stock traders. The environment will continue to be uncertain, so being predictable falls on the leaders’ shoulders.
Top photo: Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone Park, WY, USA. Adobe Stock Images
“The famous geyser currently erupts around 20 times a day and can be predicted with a 90 percent confidence rate within a 10 minute variation. Prior to the 1959 earthquake, Old Faithful erupted 21 times per day. That’s a significant decrease in activity for geologists tracking each eruption, but to visitors seeing one or two eruptions… it looks just fine.” Reference: Yellowstone National Park