It’s easy to believe that a little more certainty is exactly what we need. Today’s world seems so chaotic and unpredictable. And, after all, we are uncomfortable with mystery. Craving more certainty in our lives—as parents, leaders, and citizens—seems understandable, if not downright commendable.

But chasing certainty is self-defeating. When it comes to leadership, feeding our certainty craving leads to all kinds of not-so-positive side effects.

We drift from our original purpose.
Sometimes in this ever-changing world, we would rather abandon our purpose (which we may begin to doubt) than abandon our principles (about which we are certain). We use phrases like, “Without our principles, we are nothing.” We become rigid in our thinking. We place ideology above intention. We no longer ask, “Does this suggest new principles?” or “Does this invalidate my principles?” We retreat into our ideological armor and develop codes of conduct. Instead of making our purpose the North Star that guides us and evolving our principles to stay on course, we extol principles as the fixed element in our heavens and find ourselves drifting off course.

We block action.
In this economic downturn, pundits and politicians blame the lack of business investment on “uncertainty”. The status quo seems safer than taking new actions without guaranteed results. So we wait until we are more certain. The problem: business leaders who stand pat miss opportunities and run the risk of backsliding or limiting their organizations to incremental improvements at best.

We lose our ability to make course corrections.
We honor leaders who embrace certainty and stay the course: we ridicule those who change their minds in the face of new information. We insult them as “flip-floppers” or weak leaders who lack the courage to “stay the course”—no matter what indications we may be getting that the course we are on is no longer viable. In valuing doggedness over agility, our organizations become lethargic, rigid, and sluggish. We lose our ability to navigate while in motion.

We squander the intelligence of our environment.
We see the universe as something that must bend to our principles. Instead of seeing the universe as an intelligent, living representation of a higher intelligence, we see it as a heap of “natural resources” to be used up. A dead rock provided to us for our exploitation. We miss the signals that Nature gives us and get surprised by the collapse of ecosystems.

We get stuck to our own dogma.
We don’t like how it feels to be doubtful and unsure. So we discount or deny any data that contradicts what we believe. We screen out any information that makes us uncomfortable with our beliefs. We abandon our curiosity. We stop listening and we stop learning. We attack the motives or the competence of those who produce conclusions contrary to our own. We accuse them of not being truly “one of us”. In the U.S., we use terms like RINO or DINO. We get our newsfeeds from people who share our biases. We hang out with those who share our ideology. We lose the ability to see our own blinders.

We get trapped in illusions.
Certainty is based on a view of how things “should be”. This is too often based on a romanticized reconstruction of “remember how much better things used to be” when people of principle walked the earth and never compromised. Certainty has us constantly looking to earlier times and earlier heroes for inspiration. Clinging to “should be”, we ignore how things “are”.

We deceive ourselves by spinning history to support our “certainty story”. We get caught up in fantasies that don’t really help us deal with reality. We decide in advance of any data, and then we ignore or reject any data that conflicts with what we have already decided reality should be. We make decisions based in dogma and deception. We no longer live in the real world.

Our craving for certainty is not likely to disappear. But there is a powerful—and achievable—alternative that will take care of the craving without all of the negative side effects.


More next week…