The geopolitical landscape is volatile. Climate change and armed conflicts are wreaking destruction. The pace of inflation has confounded most everyone, including the experts tasked with anticipating it. Artificial intelligence is transforming the labor market.
This is the age of uncertainty, and there are now dozens of indexes tracking that uncertainty in various facets. Chicago Booth Review has run a number of articles about how uncertainty in economic policy, climate policy, and trade policy affects the economy and markets.
All this uncertainty calls for a specific skill: the ability to embrace ambiguity.
That skill is highly valued by businesses around the world. Karen Greenbaum, CEO of the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (and a former student of mine), shares that AESC in 2022 surveyed nearly 1,000 global business leaders, who identified agility and adaptability as critical factors for success. These same leaders also said they need to hire people who can drive change.
Dealing with ambiguity is important to being a successful leader who can make a positive impact. Businesses need people who are willing to try new things, learn on the job, and adapt to new information. This description would seem to apply to many people, including entrepreneurs and small-business owners, and yet AESC’s survey suggests that these sought-after skills are in short supply.
That demand outstrips supply is good news for anyone with this skill set to offer. But in my experience teaching leadership to thousands of executives, I find that the ability to deal with ambiguity is often underappreciated by my students and ignored by the leadership industry.
A student of leadership can turn just about anything into a personal development opportunity.
Vicarious Learning Framework Exercise
In this exercise created by the author, you can outline a systematic way to collect data that can be analyzed and acted upon. Click here to download it.
Then develop your ability to learn from new information. Most people I encounter are high achievers and extremely good at learning new information—yet they can struggle when it comes to learning from new information. In an environment of change, it’s well and good to have a foundation of information on which to build, but you must be able to continue learning throughout your life, and much of that learning comes from the lessons of your own and others’ experiences. A student of leadership can turn just about anything into a personal development opportunity. You can learn from novels, movies, and observations of other people’s lives.
Sometimes such reflection happens spontaneously, but it helps to create a structure for collecting, organizing, and making sense of the information you take in from these experiences. To guide people toward this, I developed an exercise called the vicarious learning framework (see box above). It prompts people to create a framework through which they will filter incoming data. My leadership students have used this activity to learn life lessons by observing the behaviors and habits of successful athletes, entrepreneurs, and friends. They have also focused on vicarious learning to develop their skills in taking risks on the job, collaborating in their community, parenting teenagers, and balancing career and family.
The instructions are purposefully ambiguous, and many students initially struggle with them. You might too. In class, I show students examples of previously created frameworks to reinforce the idea that a structure resulting from this exercise can take any number of forms—a journal, a spreadsheet, a flowchart, an image, or something else entirely. Part of the challenge of this assignment is to recognize the ambiguity involved and put some parameters in place that ultimately give you focus.
The exercise also requires accepting that no one sees or understands the world exactly like you do, so this isn’t work that you can expect anyone other than you to do. You are responsible for your own learning, and that means understanding and somehow explaining (even if only to yourself) how you take in and process information. When faced with an assignment that provides murky direction and no obvious conclusion, where do you turn? Inward. It’s up to you to make the situation clearer and concrete, and you must create this structure on your own terms.
Ambiguous times call for structure. Think of forecasters of all ilks, who predict everything from weather conditions to asset returns. Charting an unknown future, they create a model for what it might look like and use that model to guide decision-making. Structure helps organize information. Accountants are creating the framework through which we measure the costs of climate change. In medicine, scientists are creating vaccines, devices, and practices to help society confront an ever-changing set of public-health challenges.
We know from a large body of research that people want closure. If you dread ambiguity, navigating an uncertain situation for years on end can be exhausting. “Staying in the question,” as I sometimes call this, can provoke anxiety. But that tension can be productive. The Zeigarnik effect, named for the late psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, holds that people remember an unfinished task more than a finished one.
A person who embraces ambiguity can find it exhilarating. To be successful, however you define it, you need to see that big opportunities are in the unanswered questions, not just in the answers we already have. Once you truly learn to learn, you understand that there’s no straight line to success—only a path forward, and you use the information you take in to determine your next step. That’s why it’s so important to embrace these changing times. Use what you know to confront what you don’t.
Linda E. Ginzel is clinical professor of managerial psychology at Chicago Booth.
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