Some of the conflicting and difficult to reconcile statements made in the recent Tory Party leadership contest, reminded me of a tragic incident some years ago in the USA. The pilot of a fast combat jet on a training mission at low level pulled the controls for a full-on steep ascent, and tragically, instead flew straight into the ground.  Their mistake?  Mistaken certainty over their true position! The board of enquiry concluded that, possibly totally disorientated by their manoeuvres and G-force, they had been flying inverted without realising it! Certainty but no clarity = disaster.


This story illustrates the dangers of certainty versus clarity. Clarity over the mission and subsequent maneuverers would have saved the pilot by appropriate use of the controls, sadly un-critical acceptance of certainty killed them.  Their certainty was – if you pull back on controls you go up, however they lacked any clarity over their inverted attitude.  Only a select and highly trained few operate fast jets, however all of us are required to live and do business in a fast moving and disorientating environment.  Therefore, clarity over position, desired goals, how to navigate and possible challenges will trump certainty every time. 


As business leaders one of our key skills/competencies is clarity and the recognition that being “certain” is never enough!  The situation and desired outcomes must be critically examined before actions is taken.   We are currently operating in a world that is volatile, uncertain and full of dilemmas, therefore the ability to evaluate our true position and how to navigate our way safely to where we want to go (long term goals) is critical.  Yet as leaders we often confuse certainty for clarity.  We feel that we “know that we know”- else how can we expect to lead!  In this frame of mind, we are a danger to ourselves and our business. 


In any situation “simple” is good since it readily understood and can be communicated and implemented.  However, “simple” as in straightforward and easy to explain, understand and follow should not be confused with “simplistic”. In simplistic mode, consideration of challenges is omitted because they are too difficult to consider, conflict with pre-conceived “knowns” or will ruin the sound bite.  In the VUCA world that we now face, the simplistic will not work – the simple will.  In short, knowing that we know will not unlock the ambiguities and dilemmas that we will increasingly face as the paradigms of the past are smashed.  Being “certain” is a killer of that great competence “curiosity”.

Neuroscientists have an explanation of this phenomenon of feeling we know, even in the face of strong counter evidence.  In his book on “Being Certain” Robert Burton concluded, following MRI studies of volunteer’s brains that:

 “Despite how certainty feels it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process.  Certainty and similar states of “knowing we know” arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.”


The key to unlocking clarity and navigating successfully is being clear of where we want to go from where we are currently and for what purpose.  This road map to success should be crystal clear in our vision, mission and values.  These are vital parts of the business travel kit.  Further, they should not be an emergency pack unused since they were given to us by some external consultant, but basic guidelines at the heart of the business, thrashed out by the leadership and communicated and implemented by every member.  Clarity in this area is foundational to continued success and dealing with the pressures and challenges of an uncertain world.  Clarity here acts like a powerful gyroscope to bring the business back on the correct heading for success despite the swirl of the storm of uncertainty we face.

In this context, the composition and functionality of the team is critical.  To get to the best answers in complex situations we need teams where there is: 

  • Vulnerability based trust.
  • The ability to have robust discussions that issue and not personality based.
  • A total commitment to deliver on agreed outcomes.
  • A willingness to be held accountable on our part in the agreed action.


These four key drivers will deliver the best chance of clarity and sustainable success.  They will also avoid the dangers of group think and fatal mistakes made simply because the boss is certain!

 Therefore, as committed leaders we always tend to struggle with knowing that we know!  The powerful and effective antidote to this dangerous delusion is a critical friend and a robust team who understand the power of trust and positive conflict.  There is no room for group think in this new world!

Develop Your Clarity

Begin the steps tp develop clarity in your team – take a look at our Connect 4 programme for leaders and their teams.

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