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

Embracing Confusion - Image of a Vivid Painting

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.

A Different Way to Understand Confusion and Ambiguity

In an excellent monograph, Embracing Confusion: What Leaders Do When They Don’t Know What To Do (2005), Barry Jentz and Jerome Murphy discuss this complex leadership dynamic, which they call the “lost leader syndrome.” This occurs when a leader faces situations and challenges that simply don’t make sense. Unable to discern a clear path forward, the leader can become confused, disoriented and even “lost.” Here are 3 key concepts to keep in mind:

  1. This “confusion” has nothing to do with a leader’s intelligence or ability.
  2. Adaptive leaders believe confusion can be fruitful.
  3. If a leader can share that they are confused, that sharing can promote honesty, build trust, and create mutual respect.

1. This “confusion” has nothing to do with a leader’s intelligence or ability.

It is an inevitable element in a world filled with adaptive challenges. Unfortunately, when most leaders find themselves confused, they see this confusion as a liability. They hide it, cover it up and pretend to be in charge or to know all the answers. Leaders falsely believe they will lose their credibility and authority if they ever admitted they are “confused.”

2. Adaptive leaders believe confusion can be fruitful.

What Jentz and Murphy suggest is counterintuitive because they see confusion as a resource and not as a liability. Confusion can enable us to test old assumptions and be more creative. Jentz and Murphy look at confusion as “potter’s clay,” rather than as quicksand that will swallow up a leader.

How many times have you been in a meeting and were unsure, even confused, about where the conversation and the discussion were going? Where momentarily, you got overwhelmed and wondered what was going on? Every once in a while, some brave group member has the courage to say, “I’m not sure where we are going with this discussion” or “I hate to admit this but I’m lost here.” When this happens, most group members give a sigh of relief, because that remark has described exactly what they were feeling and thinking. Too often, we hide our confusion and others do also. We then seek quick solutions and fixes to get rid of our confusion and restore our sense of equilibrium. This “jumping to solutions” approach can produce drastic results.

3. Sharing can promote honesty, build trust, and create mutual respect.

This takes a great deal of courage and is quite hard, in my experience.

To help, Jentz and Murphy have created a five step process they call Reflective Inquiry and Action (RIA). RIA enables leaders to use their temporary confusion as a resource.

Reflective Inquiry and Action (RIA): How to Share and Work Through Confusion Productively


1. Embrace your confusion
2. Assert your need to make sense
3. Structure the conversation
4. Listen reflectively and learn
5. Process your response aloud

Let’s walk through these five steps.

1. Embrace your confusion

Acknowledge to yourself that you are confused. This is the first and most important step. Don’t deny the confusion or stuff it down. Just admitting you are confused creates the opportunity for discovery and dialogue.

2. Assert your need to make sense

Let others know you are currently confused and that you need help making sense of the confusion. For example, use statements like:

  • “This new information just doesn’t make sense to me.”
  • “Before I make a decision, I need help understanding the situation and exploring options for dealing with it.” 
  • “I have a few thoughts about this but I don’t feel like I have enough, or the right, information yet to make a good decision here.”

3. Structure the conversation

This is a critical step in the process. You want to create the condition for “joint inquiry,” where you invite others to join you in the dialogue and discussion. As a leader you want to communicate that being confused is not incapacitating. For example, use statements like:

  • “I may not know the course of action presently, and I need your help to identify a next step.”
  • “Listen, we have x minutes/hours to make this decision; between now and then, I am going to talk about what has confused me, and I want you to provide me with information, advice and feedback about what you think needs to be done.”

The key idea here is that you are inviting people into the conversation and, almost always, they will want to help.

4. Listen reflexively and learn

The leader needs to actually listen (not simply react) and clarify what they are hearing and learning, out loud. For example:

  • “You seem to be saying x, do I have that right?”
  • “This is my response to your feedback so far. X makes real sense to me, but I am unsure about y.”

If the people involved in the discussion witness you listening carefully, they will feel heard. This will encourage more discussion and idea sharing

5. Lastly, process your responses out loud (after listening carefully)

You can say, “This is my reaction to what I have heard” and then summarize where you are right now in the decision making process. For example:

  • “I think I am headed toward the third option and this is why.”
  • “I realize we don’t have all the relevant information to make a good decision. I would like us to find the answers to x, y, z and return here tomorrow to make the final decision.”
  • “I am clearer about what the next step needs to be. Here’s what influenced my decision. Does this make sense to you?”

How to get better at embracing your confusion:

  1. Use this process with a trusted thought partner, confidant or friend first. In a safe environment, you can fumble through the process and develop confidence in it.
  2. After you have experimented with RIA in a safe environment, use it with your team members or direct reports. If there is enough trust and respect in the group, you will be able to unpack your confusion and show them how to use the RIA process also. If you don’t feel comfortable with your team or direct reports, that’s a powerful diagnostic of the level of trust present in the group.
  3. Be sensitive to cultural norms on your campus. There are several campuses I have worked on where, if you were to express your “confusion.” the critics and curmudgeons would came after you with longswords. Be sensible here. There is an old saying that “one might admire a grasshopper for its courage if it attacks a lawnmower, but one wouldn’t respect its intelligence.” Use your common sense when deciding whether to use RIA. There is an art and a craft to using RIA. If you, as a leader, are always admitting you are confused, you will lose credibility quickly. Use RIA judiciously and when the issues are complex and important.

I have had the opportunity to work with over a hundred college and university presidents over the years. Again, the ones I most admire and would actually follow are those who would feel confident enough to embrace their confusion and use it as an asset.