“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is I know nothing”

Socrates

OK so here we are. All of us. In it together yet miles apart. A global village self-isolated in our living-rooms. The wings that pulsed the globe’s veins – grounded. Confusion persistently swirling our senses:

“Get back to work – work from home if you can. Lockdown saves lives – lockdown kills the economy. Sell alcohol the state is losing revenue – selling alcohol will overwhelm the trauma units needed for Covid-19 patients. Lockdowns work – Sweden’s open approach worked. You can jog – you can’t jog. You can buy cigarettes – you can’t buy cigarettes.”

We are constantly bombarded with conflicting information, scenarios and realities. This ambiguity, coupled with the intense uncertainty surrounding the future, is the defining characteristic of the current era. An era characterised by an uncertainty of meaning in which several interpretations of the same event are plausible. Leading in these times of ambiguity requires a stoic embrace of the concept and a need to create certainty amongst the crippling uncertainty.

The uncertainty initially alarms all of us. We look at a situation and immediately try to interpret it. We try to make sense of the present. Our interpretation is always right. We then present our interpretation as a fact. There can only be one set of facts, one “truth” – our truth. Invariably our truth then finds its way into the public domain, usually via social media platforms. We impose it on others, even those who do not want such imposition. As a result, news evolves at a blistering pace. Including fake news. Consequently, we are continuously presented with other people’s interpretations of the truth, their opinions. We are rarely confronted with the facts.

This leads to ambiguity.

For instance, one person’s interpretation of the success of the lockdown is different to another’s. This interpretation is invariably based on personal circumstances, their experience and association (we tend to align our thoughts with likeminded persons – especially on social media).

As leaders we need to get used to living with such ambiguity. We need to understand that every person is being confronted with ambiguity, with several interpretations of the same fact. This confrontation occurs every single morning, when social media platforms are checked. Leaders thus need to be comfortable balancing any number of conflicting thoughts, equally. They need to evaluate the ambiguity for themselves and to thrive, they need to come to terms with the belief that it is possible that any subject may have several plausible interpretations.

That is the trick. There is often no ‘correct’ or ‘best’ interpretation. This is not the rule of law, where an interpretation needs to prevail for a judgment to be produced. This is life, everyday living. We are not Judges. But we can be wise, like Socrates, and admit that we know nothing. With just a little knowledge in dialectics we can equip ourselves to deal with ambiguity and lead with greater confidence.

The word dialectic is a derivative of the Greek word for dialogue. Dialectic is essentially a discussion between two people holding different points of view about a subject BUT – here’s the kicker – both wish to seek the truth through reasoned discussion. It is a collaborative process with the distinct absence of emotion and pejorative. Sadly, pejorative language has inserted itself in our current discourse overshadowing proper reasoned dialectic.

To be pejorative means one constantly expresses a negative opinion or low regard of someone. The intention is not to collaborate but to disparage and belittle, as well as to express criticism, hostility and disregard. Destructive, negative behaviour seen daily on social media and in world politics.

The standard is that when two people differ, they belittle one another with the intention of winning the argument by intimidating the other. By killing the messenger there is a misguided belief that I’ve discovered the truth, or at least reinforced my opinion as the only truth. The antithesis of Archbishop Emeritus Tutu who said, “don’t raise your voice, improve your argument”.

Hegel introduced to the notion that opposites were compatible and that we should take comfort in this. He used dialectic as a deliberate contradiction which he saw as a three-stage process: thesis (an idea), anti-thesis (a contrary idea), and new synthesis (where both parties discovered a new truth.

This process was compatible with his notion of absolute idealism which acknowledges dualism and overcomes opposites without sublation. You can have contradictory forces without eliminating or reducing them.

Like Heraclitus of Ephesus some 2000 years before him who discovered the most remarkable of all psychological laws, namely the existence and stability of opposite tensions.

As leaders we need to take all the ambiguity, the various interpretations, the opinions and seek the truth where the truth may be found, formulating it all in a manner which is positive, optimistic and hopeful. This is critical for the survival of your business as well as the productivity of your workforce. People are scared. They are uncertain. They have created binary interpretations. They have aligned those interpretations by association. Those interpretations have become their truths.

  • You need to create opportunities
  • You need to invent the truth about your future. The future of your business.

Ask yourself the following question: What will success look like on all levels for my business: people, profit, [work]place, planet?

Leaders look for the good, the common ground and build consensus and understanding. They embrace ambiguity, simply seeing it as a multitude of opportunities rather than contradictions. They plan, but do not let plans become their master. They are the fox not the hedgehog. They are open to and grasp opportunities in whatever form they present.

In order to grasp such opportunities, they need to be aware of them. Being aware of them evolves from embracing the ambiguity. Once you understand that there are several interpretations of a fact out there. Once you have endeavoured to find the truth. Once you have formulated the facts (or even your own truth from the myriad of interpretations). Then, and only then, can you identify the opportunities and grasp them. Truly wise men surround themselves with great minds fomenting discussion with the intention of discovering new truths.

In so doing, leaders need to take those opportunities, and formulate them in a hopeful manner. They need to present them in a way that generates hope for a better future. They need to be clear in presenting them, in an age where clarity is minimised. They need to convince themselves, and others, that this is the best way forward, forward to a better future. None of us have all the answers. But accepting that we do not have all the answer shows good leadership. It reveals our vulnerabilities and shows our humanity.

Take the ambiguity, take the vulnerability, and present a new future for your business. Present a future based on hope, provide certainty amongst the uncertainty and grasp the opportunities that present themselves. Do not become binary, do not impose your immediate interpretations on others, seek the truth, and present it in a manner which is beneficial for all.

Now is our time. Let us lead.

For further information contact us: e-mail: info@saige.co.za; tel: 087 550 3374 or www.saige.co.za