Whether you’re a leader in the boardroom or the living room, people look to you for certainty. But when that’s no longer an option, you can still offer them the next best thing.
- When faced with uncertainty and disruption, where do you fall on the continuum of “the sky is falling” to “unbridled optimism”?
- As a leader, do you feel pressure to always have the right answers? How comfortable are you with admitting what you don’t know?
- How should Jesus’s model of servant leadership inform the way Christians approach leading others?
- Think about a specific dilemma you’re currently facing as a boss, manager, parent, etc. How could you offer clarity even when you’re not certain of the way forward?
NOTE: The following content is a raw transcript and has not been edited for grammar, punctuation, or word usage.
Today, we’re in part three of a four-part series we’ve entitled, Leading Through. Leading Through, and the subtitle, Three Essentials for Navigating Uncertainty.
Now, the past several months, I don’t need to tell you this, have been challenging for all of us, but they’ve been brutal for some of us, right? They’ve been brutal financially, mentally, socially, relationally, and consequently, we’re all trying to pick up the pieces and we’re all trying to move forward the best that we can. But, many of us are responsible for helping other people move forward as well: Family members, employees, team members, students, perhaps you feel responsible for an entire community. So if you’re a parent, a manager, a business owner, an executive, a teacher, a city or state official, people are looking to you for direction, they’re looking to you for inspiration, and they’re looking to us for hope.
And I don’t have to tell you this, you’re a leader, leading under normal conditions is tough enough, but leading people through what we’ve just experienced, not for the faint of heart. And I won’t tell anyone if you won’t, but nobody prepared us for this, right? We don’t have all the answers, at least I don’t. We don’t always know what to do, and if you’re like me, we’re making this up as we go along. I mean, these are uncertain times, but at some level, uncertainty, uncertainty is a permanent part of life. And to the point of this series, uncertainty, uncertainty is why the world needs leaders. It’s why your family, it’s why your company, it’s why your city needs you.
So, in this series, we’re discussing three essentials for leading through disruption and uncertainty. Now, these three leadership principles, they’re always important, but in times like these, they’re more important than ever. So we kicked things off with a narrative from the Old Testament that gave us the big picture as it relates to our roles as leaders, we were reminded that leadership is a stewardship, it’s temporary and we are accountable. Everybody is accountable to someone for how they steward or manage their influence.
Then last time, we discussed the first of our three non-negotiables for leading in times of uncertainty, and we said that every leader, every leader exercises authority at two levels. We have our positional authority as boss or manager or parent or teacher, but if we’ve led ourselves well, we also have what we called moral authority, moral authority. Moral authority is the alignment between what we say and what we do, between what we expect of others and what we expect of ourselves. That provides us with moral authority. It’s the credibility that we earn by walking our talk. It creates credibility, and credibility creates influence, and in times of uncertainty, influence is everything, which means gaining and maintaining moral authority is critical to our ability to lead well when things aren’t going well.
Today, we’re gonna talk about the second of the three essentials. And if I’m honest, I think this is the most challenging one, because today we’re gonna talk about providing clarity. Clarity. Now, you know this, leadership for the most part is about taking people on a journey. But the challenge is, that most of the time, we’re asking people to follow us to places we’ve never been. For example, oh, I’ve got one: a pandemic combined with an economic shutdown that’s left us teetering on economic meltdown while navigating social unrest during an election year. Ever been there before? No? Really? Me neither. This is my first time. And like you, this is my first time to have to lead through this particular combination of events. And like many of you, I feel responsible for leading my family through all of this, like those of you who are point leaders, I feel responsible for leading our 500-plus staff members through this, and honestly, I feel some responsibility for leading all of you through this as well.
Now, maybe you had a class on leading through pandemics and economic shutdowns in grad school, but I didn’t. There aren’t any maps, there aren’t any instructions, we’re on our own, but we’re not alone. We’re not alone because there are people looking to us for direction, reassurance and hope. This is the tension, come on, this is the tension every single leader lives with, every father who’s lost his job, every mom who finds herself parenting alone, every small business owner trying to stay afloat, every manager who senses that all eyes are on him or her when he or she walks through the office or signs on to Zoom. And, if you’re an intuitive leader, and you probably are, you know that intuitively, the thing that people want from you most, you can’t provide. Because what people want from you most right now is certainty. People crave certainty.
I mean, here’s how we know that. When politicians are running for office, what are their stump speeches filled with? Certainty. Elect me, and I promise… Elect me and things will change. Elect me and the things that no one else has been able to get done, I’m gonna get them done.
Unfortunately in our country, the only way to get elected is to overpromise, right? And then, when they underdeliver, it doesn’t matter. We’re stuck with them, right? And besides, it was somebody else’s fault. But fortunately for you, and fortunately for me, we’re not running for anything. So, do not give in to the temptation, we’re gonna come back to this. Do not give in to the temptation of promising certainty. You can’t deliver on it, you’ll just disappoint people, and the reason you can’t provide it, is not because you’re not a good leader. You can’t provide certainty because certainty rests in the realm we have no control over: the future. And if you promise it, and you don’t provide it, you will lose credibility, you’ll lose trust, and you will lose influence. And in times of disruption and in times of uncertainty, the worst thing you can do as a leader is lose this dynamic trio.
Here’s the bottom line for where we’re going for the next few minutes. Whereas you cannot provide certainty, you must, you must provide clarity. Parents, leaders, influencers, mayors, senators, you can be uncertain. You can be uncertain but you cannot afford to be unclear. Our mandate as leaders is to be clear even when things are not certain. Clarity is honest, and clarity as we’re gonna discover, is enough. And here’s why I say that, clarity is actually perceived as leadership. Clarity is actually experienced as leadership. Clarity in the midst of uncertainty creates its own influence, its own momentum. In fact, and you’ve probably experienced this somewhere along the way. In any group, whether it’s a family or a business, whoever paints the clearest picture of the future and then provides the clearest instructions on how to get there, they are ultimately viewed or perceived as the leader, because clarity is perceived as leadership.
So, if you’re at the helm of an organization or a department or a work group, you have to be clear to retain your influence during times of uncertainty, positional leadership, titles and tenure, they really don’t count for much, do they? Clarity wins the day. People crave certainty, but in times of disruption and uncertainty, clarity is the next best thing to certainty.
In times of disruption, clarity will suffice. Clarity addresses uncertainty. It doesn’t remove it. You can’t remove it, but clarity is your best bet for equipping your families, your co-workers, and our communities to navigate it. Clarity says this, clarity says, “I don’t know what the future holds, but here’s what we’re gonna do in the meantime.” Clarity says, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but we’re gonna prepare for whatever happens.” Clarity says, “Here’s the plan for now, and we will adjust the plan as circumstances demand.” Uncertainty, uncertainty is not your enemy. It’s your opportunity. It’s our opportunity to lead well. And here’s the thing, for some of you, clarity, your clarity will actually establish you as the leader. So, be clear even when you’re not certain, which by the way, [chuckle] is most of the time, right?
Now, one of my two favorite biblical examples of this principle is found in the Book of Joshua. If you grew up in church or you know a bit about the Old Testament, Joshua was the one that followed Moses as the leader of the ancient Hebrew people. The nation of Israel begins landless and lawless. It was a nation of slaves enslaved by a pharaoh, but loved and chosen by Yahweh. You know the story, God raises up Moses to face down the Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” You remember the story. And finally, Pharaoh said, “Please, go.” And then Moses leads the people south to Mount Sinai where God gives them their law, then they go north to the land that God had promised him, the Promised Land, but when they get to the border, they blink. They lose faith. They lose their nerve, because there’s way too much uncertainty.
And so for the next 40 years, Moses is forced to lead the nation of Israel around through the desert, and after pretty much that entire generation dies, the entire generation that originally exited Egypt after they’re gone, Moses again leads the people to the Jordan River, the border between no man’s land, and the Promised Land. But here’s the problem: By now, Moses is a really old man, and the time had come for him to relinquish his role as point leader. So as the nation prepares to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses hands the leadership baton off to Joshua. But there’s a really big problem, and the problem is this: The leadership environment had changed dramatically.
I mean, Moses had mentored and trained Joshua in the fine art of wandering. Every single leadership lesson that Moses handed down to Joshua, it was all related to successful wandering. For example, Wandering 101: Follow the Cloud. Wandering 201: Proper Manna Etiquette. Wandering 301: Snakebite Remedies. And it goes on and on and on. So when Joshua took over, the days of wandering were over; this was a new day, it was a brand new leadership context, they were transitioning from wandering to warring, from wandering around to settling down. Imagine this, as Joshua watches Moses shuffle off to die, he felt completely overwhelmed. I mean, he was responsible for an entire nation. Thousands of families. I mean, talk about uncertainty.
So, it’s no wonder that Yahweh, their Lord, spoke these words to Joshua. These were such powerful reassuring words. Here’s what God says to Joshua as he stands there overwhelmed with this new responsibility and all of the uncertainty that came along with it. God said this, “Have I not commanded you Joshua? Be strong and be courageous.” Which I’m tempted to ask, can you really command someone to be strong, and can you command someone to be courageous? Well, apparently so. The implications are this: Joshua, behave courageously, lead courageously. Do not be afraid and do not be discouraged. Again, can you command someone not to be discouraged?
Apparently so. To which Joshua probably thought, “Well, that’s easy for you to say, Lord.” Right? But the reason, the reason God told Joshua not to be discouraged was because Joshua was discouraged.
And I love the fact that God told Joshua not to be afraid because it’s proof that Joshua was in fact afraid and of course, he was. This was new territory, I mean, literally and figuratively. Joshua had never done this before. Everything about this situation reeked of uncertainty. But the Lord wasn’t through. And this next part would be repeated many centuries later to 1st century followers of Jesus, and apparently to us 21st century followers as well. This changes everything. “For,” he says, “The reason you can be strong and courageous and the reason you do not have to be discouraged is because the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Don’t miss this. The basis of Joshua’s courage was not his ability to predict or forecast the future. And neither is yours.
Moms, dads, owners, operators, the basis of his courage, the basis, the foundation of his leadership, was the presence of God. Now, what happens next is one of the reasons… This is one of my favorite stories as it relates to this principle. What happens next is so instructive, it is so relevant to all of us. Here’s what Joshua did next. Look at this, so Joshua ordered the officers of the people, ’cause the people were divided up into groups and each group had an officer. So Joshua ordered the officers of the people, and what he didn’t order them to do and what he didn’t say to them is as instructive as what he did order and what he did say. What he didn’t say was this, “Hey, now that I’m in charge, nothing to worry about.” He didn’t say that. He didn’t say this, “Rest assured, everything’s gonna work out fine.” He did not predict the future, he didn’t give them what they wanted: Certainty. He knew better, he couldn’t provide certainty.
So, don’t miss this, he provided the next best thing: Clarity. He gave them something to do. He gave them something to do immediately. So Joshua ordered the officers of the people, he said, “Go through the camp and tell the people, ‘Get your provisions ready.'” And then he anchored their attention to the next thing they would do and exactly where they would do it. “Three days from now.” This is so amazing. “Three days from now, you will cross the Jordan River right here, to go in and to take possession of the land the Lord your God is giving you for your own.” Now, it does not get any clearer, or any more specific than that, right? I mean, it doesn’t get any clearer than that. Collect your stuff, pack some lunches, in three days, not one day, not two days, not four days, in three days, we are crossing the Jordan River and we are crossing the Jordan River right here. Now, of course, they’re thinking, “Now, wait a minute, wait, wait. How are we gonna get all these people across the Jordan River?” Joshua is like, “Hey, in three days show up right here, we’re crossing the river.”
“Yeah, but once we’re across the river, what are we gonna do then?” “Hey, three days, show up, we’re crossing the Jordan River.” “Our parents and our grandparents said there are giants in the land,” to which Joshua would have replied, “Look, look, pack your stuff, in three days, we’re crossing the Jordan River and we’re crossing the Jordan River right here.” Clarity in the face of overwhelming uncertainty. Everybody knew their assignment, everybody knew the time frame, and everybody knew what to do next. But nobody knew what was going to happen, including Joshua. Including you. It’s like driving on a deserted road late at night, and the only way to know what’s up ahead is to keep driving. It’s like driving on a deserted road at night with your headlights on, and the only way to know what’s up ahead is to keep moving forward. That’s your job. That’s my job.
My friends, that is leadership. And during times of uncertainty, that kind of clarity is more important than ever, because, because if you are unable or if you are unwilling to be clear when things are uncertain, you will contribute to the uncertainty. In times of disruption, people need to know that somebody has a plan, and if that somebody is you, give people something to do, give them something to do now, and give them something to do next. Don’t pretend, this is huge, don’t pretend you know more than you do, it’s always tempting as a leader to pretend that we know more than we do. When people are looking to you for hope, it’s always tempting to pretend. That’s always a mistake. Don’t pretend. You’re not a leader because you know everything. Omniscience is not a prerequisite to leadership or parenting. Although in parenting it would certainly come in handy sometimes. But clarity is an essential. Be honest and hopeful. Be honest and hopeful. You can be honest about what you don’t know and clear at the same time.
Besides, the sharp people around you, come on, they’re gonna know when you’re bluffing. Pretend to know more than you do and you will lose credibility. And again, that’s the last thing you wanna lose when trying to navigate your family, your community, the folks at work through a season of uncertainty. The truth is, pretending, pretending always erodes credibility quicker than admitting you don’t know. Pretending always erodes credibility quicker than even admitting that you don’t know. Uncertainty exposes a lack of knowledge, but pretending, pretending exposes a lack of character. Pretending to know when you don’t know is a sign of insecurity. Saying, “I don’t know” when you don’t know, that’s good leadership. In fact, you actually gain rather than lose, and by expressing your lack of certainty, you give the people around you permission to do the same thing. You send them an extremely important message. “In this family, in this organization, it’s okay not to know. It is not okay to pretend to know when you don’t.” So, be honest and hopeful, be honest and hopeful, be realistic and reassuring and be candid and be clear.
My brother-in-law is a successful real estate agent here in the Atlanta area. Actually a successful broker in the Atlanta area and up around Lake Burton. And his parents, this is amazing, I’ve known Rob for a long, long time. His parents actually started their company 72 years ago. That’s amazing, right? When Rob first got into the business with his parents, his mom gave him some really, really good advice. She said, “Rob, never pretend to know more than you do when you’re selling a house or showing someone a house.” And then she gave him a statement, and I think it’s a perfect example of confidence in the face of uncertainty. She said, “Rob, when somebody asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, get in the habit of saying this, “I don’t know, but I will certainly find out. I don’t know, but I will certainly find out.”
You see, I will follow a leader who doesn’t know, but who is committed to finding out. And so will you. But I’ll hesitate to follow someone who pretends to know. So, acknowledge the uncertainty and then point to the future with confidence. Say things like this, “I don’t know right now. I don’t know right now but I’m confident we can figure this out together.” Say things like this, “Come on. We’ve never faced anything like this before, but with God’s help, and with your talent, I’m not worried. I don’t know. I don’t know when we’re gonna open our doors again, but in the meantime, here are three things we can do and we can do now.”
Our role as leaders, come on, our role as leaders is to do all we can to ensure the people around us, who are following us, don’t lose hope. That they don’t despair. But at the same time, we have to refuse to pull any punches as it relates to the reality that we’re in, the reality of the situation. We have to face, as we’ve talked about before, the brutal facts and that’s difficult.
If your personality and your temperament sets you up to be all sunshine and roses and dance around the brutal facts, you set people up for disappointment. On the other hand, if you’re more like me, that you have a tendency to wanna bury people under the facts and the statistics and the forecast and woe is me, you leave people with no option, but despair. But if we will stand in the middle, if we’re willing to rein in that part of our temperament and our personalities that tends to go one way or the other and offer hope rooted in reality, then you’ve done your family, you’ve done your community, a great service. You’ve led well, you’ve provided clarity in the midst of uncertainty.
So, face the brutal facts and then give people something to do. Be clear even when you’re not certain. And one last thing on this: Please, please do not be too proud to seek wise counsel, okay? This is important. Leadership is not all about simply making decisions on your own. It’s not about making decisions on your own. Leadership is about owning decisions once you make them. So if you don’t know, ask. And in times of uncertainty, come on, we don’t know so ask.
So, when you don’t know, seek out some people who might know. They may not have answers, but they may have insight. And oftentimes, especially during disruption and uncertainty, insight is enough. It’s enough to keep you moving forward, and it’s enough to keep you moving the people who are following you forward as well. Once again, you can’t provide certainty, but we can provide clarity. And in times of disruption and in times of uncertainty, clarity is enough. It is the next best thing to certainty. Uncertainty, come on, uncertainty will not be your undoing as a leader, as a father, as a mother. However, your inability or your unwillingness to be clear and to give clear directives in the midst of uncertainty, that may very well be your undoing. So, be clear, be clear even when you are not certain. Clarity is leadership. People will follow you in spite of a few bad decisions, but people will not follow you if you are unclear. And the reason they won’t follow you if you’re unclear is not because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
Now, I mentioned a minute ago that one of my two favorite stories, as it relates to this principle, was the story of Joshua. I’d like to close with my other favorite story as it relates to this principle. This one is more familiar. After Jesus rose from the dead, there was still a great deal of confusion and uncertainty about what would come next. In fact, his disciples straight up ask him, “What’s coming next? Are you gonna establish a kingdom? Is this the thing we’ve all been waiting for? Is this the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies? What’s next?” And from our vantage point, if you think about it, from our vantage point, we can understand how it would have been impossible, it would have been impossible for Jesus to explain what came next. So instead, he gave them something to do. And they did it. And we are the result of it. They moved forward in spite of unimaginable uncertainty fueled by these parting words of Jesus.
And here’s the thing, this is so emotional for me. Their obedience did nothing to diminish the uncertainty, but their obedience to this to-do list changed the world. You’ll remember this if you grew up in church, and then Jesus came to them and he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. All authority, therefore, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go and I want you to make followers or disciples of all nations. I want you to make followers of me from people all over the world, I want you to baptize them. And I want you to baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And then I want you to do something else. And then I want you to teach them and to obey everything I have commanded you.”
In other words, it is more important, it is more important for you to know what to do than it is for you to understand what’s gonna happen. It was more important for them to know what to do than it was for them to understand what was going to happen. And then Jesus said, “Oh, and one other thing. I almost forgot, as was the case with Joshua, and surely, I am with you all the way to the very end of the age.” And He was, and they did, and we’re the proof. So mom, dad, owner, manager, boss, coach, elected official, you cannot provide certainty. Don’t even try. What you can provide, what you must provide, especially in times like these is clarity. In times like these, clarity is the next best thing to certainty. So be clear, even when you’re not certain. And we’ll pick it up there next time in part four of Leading Through.