Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Embracing Confusion: What Leaders Do When They Don't Know What to Do

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Embracing Confusion: What Leaders Do When They Don't Know What to Do

Article excerpt

Rapid change is making confusion a defining feature of management in the 21st century. Paradoxically, the authors argue, leaders who accept their confusion can turn a perceived weakness into a resource for learning and effective action.

WHILE we didn't know it at the time, the seed for this article was planted some 20 years ago when Jerome Murphy became the new -- and often confused -- associate dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Blindsided by unexpected problems and baffled by daunting institutional challenges, Murphy often lost his sense of direction and simply didn't know what to do. To make matters worse, he felt like a phony. "For God's sake," he said to himself, "isn't a Harvard dean supposed to have the answers?"

Enter Barry Jentz, an organizational consultant who helped Murphy learn that confusion is not a weakness to be ashamed of but a regular and inevitable condition of leadership. By learning to embrace their confusion, managers are able to set in motion a constructive process for addressing baffling organizational issues. In fact, confusion turns out to be a fruitful environment in which the best managers thrive by using the instability around them to open up better lines of communication, test their old assumptions and values against changing realities, and develop more creative approaches to problem solving.

The Lost Leader Syndrome

The two of us were recently reminded of our early encounters with confusion when we had the opportunity to work on issues of leadership with a distinguished group of urban school superintendents. Given the challenge of getting to their present positions, all of these superintendents had long since mastered the skill of presenting a confident, take-charge demeanor. But after developing enough trust to talk frankly with one another, these seasoned superintendents admitted that they were often confused and sometimes simply didn't know what they were doing -- not that they could ever admit that in public.

This candid discussion revealed a pattern of behavior that we have come to call the Lost Leader Syndrome. The standard pathology may look familiar. No matter how capable or well prepared, managers regularly find themselves confronting bewildering events, perplexing information, or baffling situations that steal their time and hijack their carefully planned agendas. Disoriented by developments that just don't make sense and by challenges that don't yield to easy solutions, these managers become confused -- sometimes even lost -- and don't know what to do.

Many managers inevitably will respond to these symptoms by simply denying that they are confused. Others will hide their confusion -- their search for sense -- because they see it as a liability, telling themselves, "I'll lose authority if I acknowledge that I can't provide direction -- I'm supposed to know the answers!" Acting as if they are in control while really not knowing what to do, these managers reflexively and unilaterally attempt to impose quick fixes to restore their equilibrium.

Sometimes, these managerial responses may even succeed in making the immediate symptoms of problems go away, but they rarely address underlying causes. More often, they lead to bad decision making, undermine crucial communication with colleagues and subordinates, and make managers seem distant and out of touch. In the long run, managers who hide their confusion also damage their organizations' ability to learn from experience and grow. Yet, despite these drawbacks, few managers can resist hiding their confusion.

We have observed this dysfunctional pattern hundreds of times in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors -- in government agencies, corporations, universities, and foundations -- and believe that it is becoming more common as the pace of change accelerates.

Our recent discussions with school superintendents suggest that this pattern of confusion and hiding or covering up is particularly prevalent in the pressure-cooker world of public education. …

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