Can Confusion Be an Asset and a Resource for a Leader?

Embracing Confusion - Image of a Vivid Painting
by Patrick Sanaghan (President, The Sanaghan Group)

How Do Successful Higher-Ed Leaders Deal with Adaptive Change?

We're well-equipped, in higher education, to meet technical change head-on. We're often less well-equipped for adaptive change. This is a distinction Ron Heifetz drew, first in his thought-provoking book Leadership without Easy Answers (1998) and later with Martin Linsky in Leadership on the Line (2002).

With technical challenges, situations arise where current knowledge, expertise and resources are enough to deal effectively. A technical problem is not necessarily trivial or simple but its solution lies within the organization's current repertoire of resources (such as updated technology, takeaways from past experience, or decisions to invest more money or people).

With adaptive challenges, there are fewer clear answers. Adaptive challenges demand that we lead differently, because these challenges cannot be solved with current knowledge and expertise, but require experimentation, risk taking, creativity and the ability to use "failures" as learning opportunities. Adaptive leaders - the leaders I would follow - are those who know how to embrace confusion and ambiguity. Those are the leaders I would trust; those are the leaders who are visibly comfortable with ambiguity and who are always learning and moving forward. (I unpack this idea further in my article "Higher Ed is Facing Adaptive Changes.")

This is one of the most powerful concepts I have encountered in my thirty-year consulting career. When dealing with complexity and ambiguity, leaders will often become “confused” and unsure about how to address an adaptive challenge. This is a normal reaction.


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