01 September 2023

Unambiguous Leaders Are Rare

"The enemy of accountability is ambiguity."

--Patrick Lencioni 

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What does it mean to be personally ambiguous when you're in a position of responsibility?

And why are unambiguous leaders hard to find?

Before pursuing that last thought, let's begin with a definition of ambiguity to determine its opposite. Dictionaries define ambiguity as "any concept, idea, statement or claim whose meaning, intention, or interpretation cannot be definitively resolved." 

Put simply, it means being vague or uncertain.

Writer Don Hermann explains that the "lack of clarity in communication, mission, and vision is nothing less than a productivity and performance killer. In short, ambiguity does nothing more than destroy profitability while protecting ineffective leaders."

Hermann underscores that ambiguity is not a leadership value--but dealing with ambiguity is. Facing uncertainty and lacking complete information is an ever-present reality. Gathering more data doesn't reduce or resolve ambiguity. At some point, hesitation only postpones critical choices, making them harder to implement. 

Our decisions will ultimately be a judgment call based on our values.

Yuval Levin reminds us that to govern is to make hard choices with incomplete information. "The pandemic shows there are no purely technical solutions for problems that demand political leadership," he says.

A study by Alexander Batsuk at Deloitte illustrates that skillfully dealing with ambiguity can help a leader succeed. "This quality deals with situations with limited information and uncertainty of outcomes in the absence of clear direction.

"On the other hand, those who lack in this area simply get paralyzed by uncertainty. A large part of the problem is social acceptance. We want to be respected by others and be perceived as fitting into the surrounding community. When you're ambiguous, there is the possibility of sounding 'neutral.' When you're clear, there is a possibility of being wrong. And who wants to be wrong," Bastuk concludes.

Observers of management behavior say that those who do their best to avoid personal ambiguity have the characteristics of honesty, decisiveness, competence, and being apolitical to the extent possible.

When Confucius says, "The moral virtue of the king is like the wind, and that of the people is like grass: whichever way the wind blows, the grass bends," he is trying to teach something about the importance of the leader's moral character. (Oxford University Press)

So why are unambiguous leaders rare? 

The answer correlates with a high percentage of the populace having low levels of self-awareness; many need help knowing who they are or what they believe.

In a series of surveys, 95 percent of respondents identified as self-aware, but only 10 to 15 percent were. 

Three reasons were given for this disconnect. First, we have blind spots. We're wired to operate on autopilot, unaware of how we're behaving and why. There's also the feel-good effect--we're happier when we see ourselves in a more positive light. That last trait is a "cult of self" courtesy of social media. (Insight, Currency Publishers) 

Oxford Languages defines self-awareness as "conscious knowledge of one's character, feelings, motives, and desires."    

Here's another perspective.

"Put simply, self-aware people can interpret their actions, feelings, and thoughts objectively," says Executive Coach Meredith Betz. "It's a rare skill as many of us spiral into emotion-driven interpretations of our circumstances. Self-awareness is important because it allows leaders to assess their growth and effectiveness and change course when necessary," Betz adds.

Conversely, those with low self-awareness fail to hold themselves accountable, are dismissive of others, refrain from thinking through their actions, and tend to be judgmental. (PsychCentral.com)

Why or what?

One way out of the internal and external self-awareness dilemma is to switch from asking, "Why don't I speak up at meetings?" to "What can I do to overcome my fear of speaking up?" Psychologists say that "why" questions tend to deepen our negative thoughts. "What" questions move us toward particular outcomes. 

"Thinking about why one is the way one is may be no better than not thinking about oneself at all." ((J. Gregory Nixon and William Swann)

Beware experience and power

Studies show that people only sometimes learn from experience. And just as experience can lead to a false sense of confidence about our performance, it can also make us overconfident about our self-knowledge. The more power a leader holds, the more likely they will overestimate their skills and abilities. (Tasha Eurich, Harvard Business Review)

Professor James O'Toole suggests that as a leader's power grows, their willingness to listen shrinks, either because they think they know more than their employees or because seeking feedback comes at a cost they are unwilling to pay.


Therefore, understanding the rarity of unambiguous leaders leads us to a profound truth. Being unequivocal with others means first being unmistakable with ourselves.


© Bredholt & Co.