Brexit, butterflies and the anguish of making the right decision to move forward

Well Theresa May’s speech on 17 January may or may not have been to your liking politically, but it’s interesting to reflect on what she was trying to do.

From our perspective, when looking at her actions solely as a leader, it appears that one of the things she was trying to do was to reduce uncertainty enough to enable people to move forwards, without excluding some options she thought she may need later. You can argue as to whether she got that right or not, but it’s a key ability for a leader.

Uncertainty is ever present and there seems to be agreement that levels of uncertainty and change are increasing and therefore leadership is being tested as a result. This is what our forthcoming book Frontier Leadership will address. But one key aspect to think about is ambiguity and how to lead through it. What do you do when you get butterflies about making a serious business decision?

Too much ambiguity (the butterflies are doing loop the loops) and people freeze, not knowing what the best way forward is, or what stakeholders want. Too much certainty (those butterflies are squashed) stifles innovation – well some sorts of innovation at least – and cuts out options that may later turn out to be beneficial or needed.

So what’s the optimal level? It’s easy to explain – a level which allows people to move forward, but keeps them just uncomfortable enough that they don’t get into bad habits, stop being innovative, or closes out future options you think you may want to pick up on later. As ever, that’s harder to achieve than describe!

To be able to get there, you’ll need to be aware of your own assumptions, your tolerance of ambiguity and your propensity for taking charge when times are difficult. And you’ll need to have a sense of the same elements for your team, your customers and your stakeholders. Then you can make enough decisions to allow people to go forward with energy while all the time holding their butterflies cupped in their hands, alive and active – but not in charge!