Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

Exploring the Notion of a 'Capability for Uncertainty' and the Implications for Leader Development

Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

Exploring the Notion of a 'Capability for Uncertainty' and the Implications for Leader Development

Article excerpt


To facilitate the development of leaders, with the specific purpose of increasing their effectiveness in times of increasing organisational uncertainty, research is required to understand what a capability for uncertainty is - and what specific components constitute such a capability.

Although turbulence in the environment of the private and public sectors is not a new phenomenon, the scale of turbulence being experienced globally is unprecedented compared to previous generations (Cavanagh & Lane, 2012). This increasing turbulence is attributed to globalisation, innovation in information technology, market volatility, increased regulation and diverse stakeholder expectations (Axon, Friedman & Jordan, 2015; Lane & Down, 2010). The significance of this turbulence for leaders is that continuous adaptation and change result in ongoing uncertainty in their organisational contexts, such as new strategies, technological innovation and re-structuring (Lane & Down, 2010; White & Shullman, 2010). Individuals and leaders then, in turn, experience uncertainty (Brashers, 2001). In research after the global financial crisis of 2008, Day and Power (2009) found that the context of uncertainty in organisations fostered experienced uncertainty for executive leaders (members of the top management team), manifesting mostly as doubt and anxiety in needing to make sense of what was happening and the business implications thereof. They also experienced pressure from multiple stakeholders to account for what was going on, including dealing with their employees' anxiety and need for reassurance.

The environmental challenges of turbulence and resulting contexts of organisational uncertainty are therefore creating new demands for leadership capabilities (Axon et al, 2015; Day, 2011; DeRue & Myers, 2013; Petrie, 2011). Executive leaders need to set the tone for how uncertainty is approached in their organisations (Akrivou & BradburyHaung, 2011). They therefore need to develop their capability for uncertainty, defined in this study as the ability to engage with uncertainty in their organisational context and to lead others, while simultaneously managing their own experienced uncertainty. Day and Power (2009, p. 25) suggest that such a capability for uncertainty 'is more likely to develop through experiential learning which evolves from life experience and processes such as action learning, executive coaching and business simulation', thus requiring relevant and focussed leader development interventions.

What constitutes a holistic capability for uncertainty, however, is not clear, thus requiring research (Lane & Klenke, 2004; Woods, Gapp, King & Fisher, 2013). Of relevance, Buckle (2009) found that Human Resources sponsors of executive coaching, in organisations based in the United Kingdom, were not clear about the purposes of coaching in relation to developing leaders' capability for uncertainty, as they had difficulty in articulating what leaders specifically needed to develop. Thus, the notion of 'a capability for uncertainty' needs to be understood as the basis for determining what development interventions would be required for developing such capability in leaders. There is consensus that the key source of leadership development is experience (DeRue & Ashford, 2010a; McCall, 2010), particularly the development of a capability for uncertainty, which requires learning through and from the experience of uncertainty (Day & Power, 2009; Hase, 2002, p. 3). Therefore, research focussing on what capability for uncertainty executive leaders developed from their lived experience of uncertainty would provide valuable insights for accelerating development of this capability in leaders (Woods et al., 2013).

Research purpose and research objective

From the background sketched above, the problem is that there is limited knowledge of and a paucity of research on what constitutes a capability for uncertainty (Buckle, 2009; Lane & Klenke, 2004; Woods et al. …

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