Are you certain?

Despite all of the moderating terms added to the notion of leadership – transformational, compassionate, inclusive, servant, and so on, and so on – there remain a number of tacit assumptions about doing this sort of work that persist despite that new labelling and promotion of new models.

Chief among those, it seems to me, is the traditional notion that a leader is decisive and directive. They may weigh up the opinions and ideas of others – but that collegiality is ultimately overwritten by the idea that there is one person (or, perhaps more accurately, position) in a hierarchy – whether pyramidal or subtly disguised as some sort of network – with whom the buck stops (to deploy that tired old saw from business and politics).

Does this model fit?

This image is drawn from operational military models of leadership – or acts of political leadership at times of crisis. They share the simple fact that they are ordinarily deployed in the face of circumstances of chaos. In such a context, it is oftentimes entirely appropriate for a single individual to assume the mantle of making the last call. In the midst of a road traffic collision involving several cars, a number of casualties, and a collection of agencies and their personnel coming together to respond to the situation, the idea of someone taking the lead with a decisive and directive certainly seems absolutely vital.

And so we see all manner of leaders in corporate contexts absorbing this practice as if it were the model to be applied in each and every workplace circumstance that they come to face. When this military-political crisis response model is indiscriminately applied in this way, those who are the objects of its attention – the workforce – have greater scope to question critically the very notion of leadership and what it brings to the party.

The nature of a genuine crisis means that there is little space and time in which to consider the efficacy of what it is that you have just decided and actioned. The potential for error is a risk that simply has to be accepted and accommodated in the course of what is seen to be going on. But where one applies that style of leadership to contexts in which it might not be automatically recommended, then a second aspect of leadership discourse emerges, wherein there is a reliance on the idea of certainty and the leader always being right.

Relax…I’m right!

Here, then, is the managerial fiction of certainty: I’ve got a solution and I will apply it correctly. This can be found threaded through the corporate folklore that overlays organisational life, manifesting itself in jocular remarks like, ‘Plan B? Yes, I have a Plan B; it’s simply, “Execute Plan A”!’ Perhaps most absurdly, the leader is nudged to offer certainty in those fuzzy and ungrounded practices that are their exclusive preserve (in contrast to that which a manager might be actually doing in relation to the actual business of the business), namely, offering a vision or setting strategic direction.

Our adherence to the idea of certainty – and, conversely, our discomfiture around the notion of uncertainty in myriad circumstances – can perhaps best be explained by our general adherence to scientism. This is a view that privileges a particular vision of the purity and precision of scientific method – and seeks to apply it unquestioningly to every facet of life. However, even within science, there is concern as to how that scientism reconciles with the simple fact of the unavoidable uncertainty that runs through the foundations of that practice. Hence, in this discussion, the following powerful observation is made:

As a rule, people dislike uncertainty and try to avoid ambiguity. When faced with decisions, they often will choose the least vague alternative even when more vague alternatives have a better expected payoff. Scientists, including medical professionals, may be reluctant to discuss the uncertainties of their work as well. It is tempting, then, to avoid talking about uncertainty when communicating science, but this may be a mistake. Some audiences know that uncertainty exists and say they want to be informed about how certain scientific findings are. It also is possible that
failing to discuss uncertainty conveys a false sense of certainty that can undermine trust should the information have to be revised in light of new findings. (pp27-28)

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017) Communicating
science effectively: A research agenda. Washington, DC: The National Academies

Mention herein of the specific tensions that exist within medical science seems particularly important at this time of virus and vaccines – and the associated presence of an active community positioning themselves to contest that old notion of certainty deriving from authority. Even before this contestation, though, we find Hillen et al in 2017 making the following observation in this regard: ‘Uncertainty in health care is also a growing problem due to the increasingly rapid emergence of new medical technologies that outpace the development of evidence regarding their benefits, harms, and implications. Meanwhile, public awareness of limitations in medical knowledge has been heightened by expanding mass media coverage of medical controversies and the rise of the evidence-based medicine and shared decision making movements’ (pp62-63).

More recently, a research article published by van der Bles et al in 2020 concluded that uncertainty within scientific discourse was better tolerated when communicated numerically than when articulated verbally (p7680). This was seen to impact on the audiences reaction to the trustworthiness of the material in general. (As a sidebar here, much has been made in terms of leadership development of the use of storytelling. Invariably, it is argued that this brings the data to life. However, it remains deeply insulting, carrying with it the implication that the leader’s audience would struggle to make sense of the data if it were not wrapped up in a story of that leader’s making. And, in light of this research, it may serve to render their message less trustworthy, because it eschews the numerical in favour of the verbal.)

The ideological influence of scientism as a way of seeing the world and a model for trying to make sense is patently an ideological construct, as we see from these discussions around uncertainty within the bounds of science itself. There are doubtless all manner of socio-biological explanations for why human beings find uncertainty difficult to entertain – but there is also the simple fact that scientism assumes a degree of certainty and hence reproduces for us all in a epistemological sense an intolerance of uncertainty in general. We demand to know the world – and we want to be in possession of the definitive version of that knowledge.

Our expectation in this regard can be traced in the wider discussions at this time of viruses and vaccines – particularly in those locations where the “science” as it is described interrelates with a wider socio-political agenda. Because scientism has effaced the uncertainty at the heart of scientific endeavour for so long – particularly in regard to the public discussion of science – its appearance in the course of our current crisis – understandable though it is – has opened the opportunity for people to contest not just some aspects of the evidence but the whole of it, seeking solace instead in conspiracy theories and alternative views (all of which assume the mantle of scientism to justify themselves, of course).

“The leader doesn’t know? Get us a new leader!”

Modern leadership thinking and practice, then, is fatally contaminated with scientism – and so ceaselessly seeks to cleave to the illusory notion of certainty. Those who seek to lead face epistemological constraints that simply do not allow them to acknowledge, let alone inhabit, the simple notion that the world – particularly the social world – is only ever partially knowable and hence is defined in terms of constant uncertainty. Yet they are meant visibly to fly in the face of this, delivering pronouncements that are taken to be both definitive and directive: this practice derives from a general prefix in respect to every thought or decision in this realm, namely, “I know…so I unquestionably and unquestioningly decide and declare this.” Hence, leaders occupy an utterly abstract realm, rather than being grounded in the messiness of real life. Not so much the phenomenological life-world, then, as a distorted and inauthentic “leader-world” (a name for a theme park that I’m pretty sure nobody would want to venture to visit).

Hence, we face an organisational life wherein leaders both project and expect certainty. They fetishize data in the mistaken view that it makes their context truly knowable – and hence their actions can be expressed in terms of certainty. The messiness of reality – and people inhabiting that space – is denied (and, in many instances, is actively effaced) by the accretion of data that leadership seeks to amass so as to make their take on the world seem certain. In the current crisis, this insatiable appetite for certainty is manifesting itself in intensely controlling behaviours amongst leaders. We see them pointlessly craving and demanding more and more data in order to sate their personal need for certainty.

A more contentious perspective in this regard is to suggest that they are thrusting their hands into our heads, desperate to get a handle on us as we sit at a new type of distance by their unhealthy obsession with “health and well being” and its quantification. In this regard, of course, we rarely – if, in fact, ever – see them selflessly offering the practical support that is needed in that regard, which is to ease off the accelerator of “busyness” in organisations. Lastly, we see (in some vile instances) leaders seeking certainty through the use of the super-surveillant potential of platforms like Zoom and Teams in order to try to micro-manage affect…as if being stuck on Zoom for hour upon hour wasn’t bad enough in itself, as recent research into “Zoom fatigue” has helpfully demonstrated, without the gimlet eye of the techno-overseer glowering at you down the cabling.

Taking the lead on unknowability

Life is uncertain. That has always been the case and it has been very noticeably so over the past 12 months – and will continue to be so, as the complex of variables that are interacting at this time continue to generate unintended consequences – and each act within this systemic context, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, kaleidoscopically shifts the context into an altogether different pattern.

The ideology of scientism inappropriately infects every corner of our social lives. It is especially apparent in leadership, particularly in the corporate context. The expectation that it is possible to know the world sends leaders down all manner of unhelpful – and sometimes actively harmful – rabbit-holes. For example, they want reams and reams of data to reassure them that the world has been captured and can be managed, yet all that does it create a simulacrum of reality that has little or no proper contact with the lived experiences of those who they would presume to lead. And the tacit recognition of the innate unknowability of the human subject leads them into the compensatory intrusion of trying to manage affect and get inside people’s heads.

Surrendering the erroneous notion of knowability – and thence actively embracing uncertainty – opens up a space for leaders to rethink what they do and how their leadership might be shifted so that it could be experienced as carrying greater value. In most instances, we are all of us a long way from having the individual courage and collective will to do that – but these two acts are surely a better way of describing leadership than the definitions found in any number of management textbook. One of us – and then some of us – need bravely to take a lead and make those first moves.

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