The Uncertainty of Certainty

Benjamin Franklin notably wrote, “nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

When I entered the world of commerce in the 1970s, Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Wards were the two dominant retailers in America. K-Mart was rising in smaller cities, but no one thought it would topple Sears and Wards. Walmart and Target were just getting started. In those days, we (my peers and I) were absolutely certain the retail giants of the day were unbeatable. So how did that turn out?

In my efforts to understand business leaders over the years, this issue of “certainty” seemed to always be lurking. Whether successful or not, leaders needed to appear certain.

One thing I was certain of as a budding young capitalist was that a business needed to grow, and grow at double-digit rates, to succeed and survive. I was certain that growth was not only necessary for success but was itself the primary objective of a business.

Turns out, I’m no longer certain I was right.

The captain of the HMS Titanic was absolutely certain of his goal. He was the Chief Operating Officer of the world's largest, fastest, and most luxurious steamship. His goal, cross the Atlantic to New York City faster than any ship had done before. (His version of my double-digit growth.)

He had the right tools--an experienced crew with a modern, unsinkable (according to the experts), and well-powered vessel. As a long-time captain, he'd led many a voyage to a successful conclusion.

But his absolute certainty ultimately put his ship and passengers in a fatal position when he showed no flexibility toward icebergs. Depending on the story you hear, the captain of the Titanic either ignored or misunderstood the warnings of icebergs in the shipping lanes. He continued on his mission, full speed ahead.

In all aspects of life, from running a nonprofit organization, a government body, or a traditional business, there are three types of leaders:

The absolutely certain (and inflexible) leader, like the captain of the Titanic. They can appear bullheaded (and inspiring sometimes) as they steer towards a goal, full speed ahead, and damn the icebergs. They may arrive at their destination safely, but often they sink.

The certain and flexible leaders are quietly confident and steady. They adjust their organization to the conditions surrounding them while keeping the ultimate goal in mind. They often arrive safely and are celebrated for their wisdom and courage. They rarely fail.

Too many leaders of organizations enter the iceberg-filled waters with no clear destination in mind. Uncertain where they want to end up, they speed up, slow down, or change course for no apparent reason--at least to those around them. They bounce from one iceberg to the next, rarely hitting hard enough to make a fatal mistake, but sustaining cumulative damage from each hit. When they fail, there is nothing spectacular about it. On the rare chance they succeed, there are no accolades.

There are many icebergs in the course of every organization. The unexpected loss of a key employee(s) or customer. Cash flow problems. Market changes. Pandemics. Environmental degradation. Political changes.

Let’s look for and support leaders who are certain of their mission but flexible enough to miss the icebergs.