How Great Global Leaders Deal with Ambiguity


For those of us who juggle multiple projects in multiple parts of the world, it can be stressful to have to deal with this level of ambiguity. For me personally it takes more of my mental energy than I would like to plan for, deal with and flex around this type of ambiguity.

It the language of the Cultural Orientations Indicator (COI), I am control oriented – I believe that I can take control of my environment and impact my destiny in ways small and large. As a result, I can often be effective in a global business environment, figuring out how to get things done in situations where the rules of engagement are often a bit unclear. However, control-oriented people, myself included, frequently struggle with things beyond our control. Perhaps the market drops and a company has to pull resources from a project, or maybe a great new hire decides to take an opportunity closer to home, or even having to change travel arrangements because of a snowstorm – these are events that happen regularly and routinely in the global business environment but that are nonetheless frustrating.

At TMC, we talk about strategies for cultural adaptation, or style switching – how we adopt a different behavioral style in the face of a different culture, a unique situation or a new type of challenge. The truth is, some behaviors are easier to switch than others. For me, I am always challenged by my control orientation, and how it can keep me from being more flexible and seeing the potential in an uncertain situation. This got me to thinking: What do the great global leaders that I know all have in common when it comes to dealing with ambiguity?

  1. They understand the trade-offs between long term and short term – By realizing that not everything has to (or can be) decided immediately, they learn to relinquish constant control of everything going on around them and to focus on the things they can control
  2. They have strong support systems – Both inside and outside of work, great leaders have a group of diverse people with differing perspectives, whom they can rely on to ground them and keep them “honest,” reminding them of what is really important at any given time. The very best global leaders do this proactively, seeking out feedback on how they are dealing with ambiguity.
  3. They practice “conscious abandonment” – A good friend of mine uses the analogy of falling off a cliff. Great leaders know that every day there is likely to be a cliff, a decision or an event that carries risk, and that the landing spot is unknown and perhaps even dangerous. When all the facts are in place, and all the work has been done to consider the potential options, great leaders jump.

David Lange