Leading through the Fog of War

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In a war, commanders of armies live with uncertainty. Reconnaissance and spying can supply them with some information, but they never have complete knowledge about their enemy’s troop positions, capabilities, and intentions, and they never know for sure what environments and weather conditions they will face when they go into battle. Military strategists refer to this condition as “the Fog of War.” The best commanders are very well acquainted with the Fog of War. They allow it to remind them that when they overestimate their level of certainty about any one variable, they put lives at risk.

Philosophers—our “thought leaders”—are also keenly aware of the limits of what humans can know. Their term for the study of knowledge and uncertainty is “epistemology.” Like good military commanders, our best philosophers make as few assumptions as possible. And when they do have to make assumptions, they always state those assumptions explicitly. A philosopher understands that if the foundation is faulty, the whole structure is liable to fall down, so her or she will expend whatever efforts are necessary to make sure the foundation of a theory or belief is unshakeable.

Business leaders should share philosophers’ and military leaders’ healthy respect for uncertainty. External environments can be very foggy. Regulatory environments and tax structures change frequently. Your competitors’ decisions are often unpredictable. The exact size and true demand of a specific market is unknowable before a product is launched into it. And even within your own organization, there is plenty of uncertainty: employee motives and capabilities are sometimes difficult to determine, and conflicts within teams are very tough to untangle.

As a leader, you need to navigate between two extremes, which are exemplified by the military failures of Napoleon Bonaparte and George B. McClellan…

Never disregard uncertainty like Napoleon:

A healthy dose of awareness and humbleness goes a long way. If you think that the facts no longer matter, or you’ve been so successful in the past that you can’t lose, your own personal Waterloo is only a matter of time.

But don’t become paralyzed by uncertainty like McClellan:

While Robert E. Lee was moving nimbly and cleverly closer to Union territory, McClellan was pouring over maps and wringing his hands. His indecision ended up costing tens of thousands of Union and Confederate lives. If you cannot operate in the face of ambiguity, you cannot lead.

Leadership coaches provide an outsider’s perspective from which to test assumptions and question judgment calls, and when necessary, to call a client to action. They help clients to strip away some of the bias and confusion that results from being immersed in an organization and industry, which makes detecting and gauging uncertainty so difficult. Together, a coach and a client can see further through the fog of uncertainty by approaching it with the rigor of a philosopher and the urgency of a general.


Photo Credit: “Soldier Man” by maniaroom at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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