In my past couple Projections columns for Net Assets magazine, I have referenced the unpredictability of the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world we are living in right now. I addressed the VUCA environment in terms of school business, tuition setting and compensation. But the concept is also highly relevant to strategic planning, as I learned while reading the Winter 2023 issue of Independent School magazine, specifically the article “Control Alt Delete” by Greg Bamford and Crystal Land.
The unpredictability of a VUCA world can feel scary and threaten our feelings of competence, explain Bamford and Land. In times like these, “communities often look to leaders to express certainty about the school’s future.” While school leaders may feel pressed to deliver THE answer, the authors assert leaders would benefit from a different mindset that is more flexible regarding a school’s future strategy.
This point deserves unpacking. Thirteen years in the independent school world have shown me that our culture is steeped in the mindset that there is an answer, THE answer. I see it in school communities and cultures that deify the head of school, or association leaders, or consultants. I want to posit that leaders don’t have answers, but rather make choices, with limited time and resources, and often in ambiguity. The sooner we get comfortable with choices rather than a singular answer, the better equipped we all will be moving forward in ambiguity, which does not seem to be leaving us anytime soon. In fact, this is one of the key traits of a successful leader.
In practice, operating in ambiguity means that to lead our schools forward, we must select among options, all of which may be undesirable for one reason or another. Boards of trustees, heads of schools, business officers and other senior leaders must play this role day by day, week by week. At the end of the day, benchmarking and identifying best practices can only get you so far. And we often don’t have the luxury of time to gather all the information that we want, so decision-making comes down to a choice. Leaders make choices. Some are good and others are not. That’s leadership.
These reflections led me to another article, this one in Harvard Business Review, titled “Why Leaders Should Be Open About Their Flaws” by Li Jiang, Maryam Kouchaki and Leslie K. John. The authors harken back to the late 1980s leadership mantra, “Image is Everything.” Apparently this catchphrase originated in a copier commercial featuring tennis star Andre Agassi. The advice to “Fake it ‘til you make it” strikes similar notes. The idea is to be perceived as a leader with a pristine veneer, which will lead to organizational success.
One downside to this approach, explain the authors, is that leaders who are determined to keep their guard up come across as inauthentic. Returning to my earlier points, leaders who project having THE answer foster communities that demand surefire answers. These leaders can’t show their vulnerability because they would risk coming across as weak or ineffective.
The good news is that the research shows a different approach is more likely to lead to success. “We found that disclosing weaknesses increased perceived authenticity for both male and female leaders, garnering benefits regardless of gender,” wrote the authors. “In addition, the higher the status of the discloser, the stronger the positive outcomes were. It matters that you share your true self.” An important point is that leaders must disclose their weakness voluntarily to be perceived as authentic. “If a leader shares a weakness because they’re required to or got ‘caught,’ the intention is muddled,” they explained.
Whether it’s in public speaking, meeting deadlines, or being frank about not having THE answer, the leaders that self-disclose uncertainty or not knowing increase their connectedness to their staffs. Leadership is about showing up as your authentic self and reassuring your community that WE will find an answer, and if it’s not the right one, then we will try another approach that’s better. I hope this is reassuring and that these findings help you be your true self and lead to your fullest!