Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. – Dorothy
If Dorothy never heard about the yellow brick road, would she ever have been whisked back to Kansas? Would the tin man have found his heart? The lion his courage? The straw man his brain?
The yellow brick road is a powerful metaphor connecting to something deep in the human psyche. It represents hope, direction, and purpose. Yet it also symbolizes a singular promise: follow the yellow brick road, and your dreams will come true.
Transferring these sentiments from a fantasy world to today’s world is as simple as it is complex. Most people rarely openly entertain these kinds of questions, while privately, they harbor feelings of doubt and confusion. The gap between public proclamations and private thoughts is often so great that many people learn to ignore uncertainty altogether. As one person put it, “Around here, you’ve got to know all the answers. And even if you don’t, you learn to act like you do.” In short: certainty prevails, doubt does not.
Our culture tells leaders that they “have to know with absolute certainty.” And it conveys to them in hundreds of ways, both large and small, that uncertainty is bad:
The answers to these questions are uncertain; they’re all subject to speculation and opinion. Yet, often leaders are judged by their ability to provide accurate answers to unknowable questions.
Our approach is decidedly different from the prevailing paradigm. Our core premise is that it is better to embrace uncertainty rather than seek to eliminate it. Typically, when people first encounter uncertainty, they try to drive it out. Eventually many people learn to tolerate, and perhaps cope with uncertainty. Some even learn to accept uncertainty as an inevitable force to overcome. We want to encourage leaders and people to aspire to something greater — to embrace uncertainty. Why?
We believe it is far better to plan and execute on the best available options that maximize the chances for positive outcomes instead of expending energy asking questions and requiring answers for things that are unknowable. And these actions are rarely one dimensional. The best outcomes result from approaching problems on multiple fronts, addressing all of the issues we know at the time. And also, be constantly open to new information. Seldom is there a “yellow brick road.”
Embracing uncertainty requires a fresh thought process and new behaviors, both on a personal and organizational level. We suggest the following:
Goodbye yellow brick road!
Robert J. DeKoch, President, The Boldt Company
Phillip G. Clampitt PhD, Blair Professor of Communication, University of Wisconsin – Green Bay
They are the authors of Embracing Uncertainty: The Essence of Leadership and Transforming Leaders into Progress Makers: Leadership for the 21st Century