adaptive leadership styles ambiguityIn his book, “The Ambiguity Advantage,” author David Wilkinson describes four modes of leadership: technical, co-operative, collaborative and generative. These modes are mapped against their typical responses to ambiguity and uncertainty, how they commonly solve problems, and the sorts of problems each mode is best suited to solve.

In the technical leadership mode, we see four typical responses to ambiguity: those who insist there is only certainty; those who choose to do something else or deny ambiguity exists; those who choose to ignore risk or try to reduce it as much as possible; and those where the leader takes responsibility.

The problem-solving mode leads to a leader-led and highly structured process that is logical and linear, facts based with definite answers. It defers to hierarchies and expertise, and does not tolerate diversity. Overall, the technical leadership mode is best for technical problems that require technical solutions.

In the co-operative leadership mode, there are typically four responses to ambiguity: it is keenly felt by the individual; internal ambiguity is tolerated; the individual takes immediate steps to reduce external ambiguity; and no one individual in the team takes responsibility. In this mode, problem-solving leads to a research-led, facts-based process, but opinions and subjective views of different realities are explored, and diversity is accepted — within bounds. The co-operative leadership mode is best suited for situations where co-operative problems require operative solutions.

In the collaborative leadership mode, typical responses to ambiguity include: conversation where all ambiguity is explored and embraced, but not much action is taken; acceptance of shared responsibility; happiness with ambiguous situations for extended periods; and thinking that explores risks to bring about equal opportunities.

The collaborative leadership problem-solving mode is usually group-led and consensual, and fosters an adaptive creative thinking processes. It brings about a supportive, low risk environment for the individuals, but presents high risk for the collective group. Diversity of thinking is accepted. This leadership mode is best suited for situations where problems require adaptive responses and solutions.

The generative leadership mode will typically see responses to ambiguity such as: all ambiguity is explored for learning and opportunities; ambiguity is sought out to find the advantage; and everyone takes responsibility for everything. This problem-solving mode leads to a situation with a strong leader; expert views are explored and built upon. There is creative divergent and evidence-based convergent thinking. Diversity is essential — there is a strong need for a range of perspectives. Generative leadership mode is best suited for generative problems that require future pacing and creationism.

Now that we have walked through the four leadership modes to deal with ambiguity, which mode does your team commonly use? How does it address ambiguity?

Sydney Finkelstein, professor of management and faculty director at the Tuck Center for Leadership at Dartmouth College, claims the failures in judgment we see among leaders in many organizations can be attributed to six factors:

  • They rely too much on part experience.
  • They become addicted to office politics.
  • A failure of clarity about their and their organization’s purpose.
  • They mismanage resources.
  • They don’t see the opportunities.
  • They simply don’t trust themselves to lead.

Do you rely too much on past experience? The adage that “what got you here, won’t get you there” applies to decision-making. While experience is invaluable, so is the ability to look on a familiar problem, and the available evidence, with fresh eyes. Much of the skill in judgment lies not in the decision that’s made, but the way the decision-maker makes the decision. Do they rely on gut feeling, or engage in rigorous analysis? Do they employ a particular tool or technique? Do they involve others and if so, how?

How clear are you about what business needs right now? American business theorist and Harvard professor Chris Argyris coined the term “Triple loop thinking.” Single loop thinking asks, are we doing things right? Double loop thinking asks, are we doing the right things? But triple loop thinking asks, how do we decide what is right? This sort of thinking challenges fundamental assumptions and can create paradigm-changing ideas. It is the kind of thinking that leads to a business like O2 transforming itself from a mobile phone company to a customer service provider.

How well do you manage your resources? People — colleagues, team members, peers, reports, etc. — can be a key resource. A responsive, decentralized decision-making process in which individuals are empowered to act and responsible for their actions has clear advantages.

For leaders, it is a process they can adopt to, delegate to, and use to empower their followers. For the organization, it is a leadership culture that supports timely decision-making. In a world with little certainty beyond death and taxes, organizations that can accept and manage ambiguity best, will prosper.

Ian Stewart is head of leadership and organizational practice at Kaplan Professional Education. Comment below or email


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