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Leadership And Uncertainty: Embracing The Unknown

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The paradox of leadership today is that leaders are free and constrained at the same time. In this article, derived from Relax, It’s Only Uncertainty: Lead the Way When the Way Is Challenging, you learn how to make the most of your innate curiosity, focus, persuasive ability, and energy to be an effective leader.

This article is derived from Relax, It's Only Uncertainty: Lead the Way When the Way Is Challenging (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0273652419).

This chapter is from the book

Effective leadership is about finding the fit between behavior, context, and organizational need. There is no one right way to lead, no all-explaining theory. Historically, the most useful question you could ask about leaders and leadership was: "Where did the leader come from?" When leaders were rare and unusual beasts, many of them were chosen for leadership roles because of their background. So asking where they came from told you a lot more than asking questions about their skills, behavior, or personality.

Even today, there are some frequent suppliers of leaders—certain families, universities, etc. But it would be wrong to suggest that the assumption that leaders are born remains strong. There are three main differences in our assumptions about leaders and leadership:

  • Today, leaders can and do come from anywhere.

  • Today, everybody feels that they could be a leader, whereas in earlier times most people felt excluded, irrespective of their talent, skills, or aptitude.

  • Today, defining leadership is a complex matter. Before, it was simple. Leadership was what leaders did. It might have been positive or negative, kind or cruel, but leadership was what the leader did.

Where Do New Leaders Come From?

It is arguable whether there was a single moment when we dramatically shifted from choosing leaders because of their background to choosing leaders because of their skills, behaviors, and competencies. However, we would identify the Second World War as one of the most significant turning points in the progression of leadership understanding and development. Prior to that time there was little research or structured work done on selecting leaders for their skills and competencies.

But during the Second World War, competing organizations needed to rapidly identify and understand what effective leaders did and then work out how to select them. Each side had to tackle the same problem. Where do we find new people who can be commanders who don't come from the traditional sources? Each approached the problem in remarkably similar ways. They developed various versions of what we now would call the assessment center. They analyzed the activities, behaviors, and attributes necessary to be an effective commander in the military forces and then sought to find ways of identifying people who had those skills or that particular potential. Assessment techniques such as the paper-and-pencil test, the psychological inventory, the structured interview, and so on were all developed around this time. The War Office Selection Board, or WOSB, in the UK and the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, in the US are examples of organizations that used assessment center technology that would go on to have a major influence in leader selection.

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