Ambiguity Is Nirvana For Leaders

One of my global clients is mid-way through a major regional re-organization in Europe which is nothing short of a transformation for them.  Before the re-organization, which was announced a year ago, all functions and operations reported into a country manager (of which there were quite a few in Europe) who was ultimately accountable for the full P&L.  Now, all sales, marketing, supply chain and production is being thrust into one European structure and there is only one sales force, one supply chain, one production capacity, and one P&L.  This initiative has been thought about for years and is strategically the right thing to do in that region and for the company globally.  It is also well supported and endorsed, at least intellectually, by the European leaders. What they didn’t fully anticipate was the degree of chaos and resulting ambiguity that had to be managed, both in the transition details and heightened emotional responses of the people being most affected.  In short, they did not fully understand the level of strategic leadership required in such a transition.  

While new reporting relationships were a big part of this game-changing announcement a year ago, a majority of details were to be worked out along the way, which is natural in situations like this. However, a year has passed, and still, major processes are still evolving and many details still require resolution.  The change implementation is dragging on and valuable time has been slipping away.  Their customers welcomed these changes but are wondering aloud “what is taking you guys so long?”

One of the most significant changes, is the senior leaders in Europe have been shifting from the initial approach of a top down  “follow us” message to the troops, which is how they started a year ago, to a clear message of “We don’t have the answers. Don’t wait for us. Take charge of your situations and we will support you. Be empowered”.  This is something previously unheard of in this company as they have begun to realize that empowered leader’s equals speed of implementation.  The new rules are not clear, the long term roadmap not immediately apparent, and the “right” actions not always certain.  Isn’t this the perfect climate for leadership?  David Spangler, a spiritual thought leader from Findhorn, Scotland, and whose work I read back in the days of my hippiedom, once said “Leadership appears in one who has clarity in the moment” and not necessarily the one(s) who have positional leadership.  When the path is not clear, waiting and hesitating does not make it clearer.  George Land, a noted thought leader on organizational change proposed that organizations who navigate change well  also do the following three things well: 

  1. They know where they came from.
  2. They know where they want to go.
  3. They know how to learn quickly on the way. 

You thought I was going to say they know how to get there didn’t you – but in transformation no one really knows completely  ”how to get there”.  This state of ambiguity is nirvana for leaders as they can shape the future.  In this environment leaders take charge and learn on the way and that gives others something and someone to follow.

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