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Leadership Wisdom from…Keith Richards?

Well, sort of.

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards famously said, “I look for ambiguity when I’m writing because life is ambiguous.” While I might not have many things in common with Keith, we definitely agree when it comes to this subject. Uncertainty is a constant in our personal and professional lives. Depending on your perspective, that’s either wildly exciting or extremely uncomfortable.

Accepting ambiguity

Let’s face it. Those who prefer to work in an environment where they maintain complete control over everything are sadly out of luck in today’s market. (Go ahead…mentally cue the chorus of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”) Always knowing what’s next just isn’t possible. Or realistic. The business world remains in a continuous state of flux. Customer needs shift. Products and services evolve. Competitors come and go. Technology advances by leaps and bounds. We might as well befriend ambiguity, because it’s here to stay.

Many of my clients are in the process of becoming more comfortable with the concept of ambiguity. Not that they really have a choice. They are leading change initiatives. They are given goals and metrics that seem impossible to achieve. Their jobs and career paths are often undefined. In response, they are learning to acknowledge that this built-in ambiguity complicates decision-making and adds stress, but it also provides them with an opportunity to demonstrate their unique leadership skills.

Leveraging ambiguity

Not everyone is cut out to thrive in the chaos of constant change. But the good news is, those who find a way will certainly stand out as clear leaders. If you’re going through an unstructured, uncertain or uncomfortable time in your career, here are 8 tips to help you embrace ambiguity like a total rock star.

1. Get organized.

You’ll feel more in control if you take an inventory of your resources and better understand the variables that are beyond your control. Make a list of what you know and what you don’t. What’s likely to change? What is static?

2. Define the problem.

Be clear about the current challenge, the specific obstacles, the unknowns, and the desired outcome.

3. Visualize the solution.

Think about a visual representation of the problem (a picture, or even a symbol or metaphor), and use that imagery to guide you toward a flexible, adaptable solution.

4. Create your own structure.

If it doesn’t exist, build it. Break big projects into smaller chunks that seem more manageable. Set your own interim deadlines to stay on track. Schedule times to step back from daily tasks to get a big-picture view, identifying potential ways to infuse creativity and innovation into the process.

5. Take action.

This can be scary when you’re facing the unknown. But moving forward with small steps can give you a sense of accomplishment and allow you to course-correct easily as new information becomes available.

6. Collaborate.

When facing uncertainty, collective intelligence can be very powerful. Take time to visit with colleagues, ask questions, and share knowledge. Make learning an active and ongoing process.

7. Welcome feedback.

No one likes criticism, but candid feedback from those with an outside perspective can be game-changing. Ask for suggestions, and keep an open mind.

8. Manage your stress.

Ambiguity is unavoidable and stressful, so implement a strategy that helps you decompress. Head to the gym or a yoga class. Schedule regular outings with friends. Or just do a little deep breathing at your desk, perhaps with some Rolling Stones music in the background. (Thanks, Keith!)

How do you deal with the pressures of ambiguity and uncertainty? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Photo By Siebbi (Keith Richards) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.


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