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The case for a confused leader

There are many theories about what it takes to be a transformational leader. The prevailing view is that leaders should never be perplexed or confused. They should be decisive, and above all, leaders should be decisive about the future. Leaders must ‘get a grip’ and ‘get us there’, heroically.

Sound familiar?

Leadership is important but for a business to remain as viable tomorrow as it is today, we must challenge the prevailing view in three important ways:

  • Leadership happens in the now. It is a present tense activity, and “now” is the only place where change can happen.
  • Self awareness. This is where the leader begins. If you don’t know who you are, or how you think, then your leadership means nothing.
  • Bewilderment*. This word describes the state of being perplexed, confused, mystified or puzzled, and it’s a much more useful state to cultivate and understand if you want to lead. This may seem an odd thing to say, but bear with me.

Leading only happens in the present

When we believe that our strategic vision exists as an object out there, in the future, two things happen. First, we tend to build up a selective picture of reality as it should be, not as it actually is.  This creates tunnel vision.  Second, because we do this, we restrict the choices and opportunities that are available to us, now. We see only what we want to see. Our thinking is biased.

But it’s not the future that’s unknown, it’s the present!

This is much more exciting, because it means the present is what we must explore if we want to understand and be ready for what’s next. Leadership should be about liberating people to achieve remarkable things, using all the possibilities in the here and now.

Most leaders, though, are not trained to see things this way. Why?

Self-awareness leads to change

Most of us know very little about how we think, what lenses we use and what assumptions we make. We are prisoners of our assumptions, and false assumptions create faulty results. This is why self-knowledge is critical for leadership. If we don’t know who we are then we will not be able to break any patterns that are holding us back or making us repeat the same mistakes over and over. Leaders who never admit to their own fallibility cannot possibly expect others to follow them. This makes us very resistant to change.

The benefits of bewilderment

The business school where I work sits next to the River Thames near London in a magnificent country house. It’s a very impressive and remote location, ideal for reflection. Shortly after I joined in 2005, I remember a lunchtime conversation with a senior administrative staff member in the canteen.

“You know what we like to call this place? The Home for the Bewildered!” she joked.

Of course, this was aimed gently at the leadership strategy (or lack of it, at the time), but over the years I have come to appreciate the value of not knowing, if embraced with self-awareness. Confusion is a very powerful idea.

Think about it – if you find yourself confused or puzzled, you only have two options. You can bluff it out, and pretend that you do know, or you can take ownership of the truth of not having all (or any!) of the answers and generate some new questions. The first results in people building defensive walls around their opinions, walls which then obscure them from real-time facts. The second uses curiosity and intelligence to find out what’s going on.

Leadership is about finding the better question, not the better answer.

Learn more about how to realise your full potential as an individual and leader in Henley Business School’s Integrated Leader programme, a dynamic journey into self-discovery and awareness. The programme is an opportunity for experienced managers and leaders with a curiosity for self- and system understanding to attain new depths in both professional and personal fields.

* Bewilder   /bɪˈwɪldə/  Verb: To cause (someone) to become perplexed and confused.

chris dalton

Chris Dalton

Chris Dalton is Associate Professor of Management Learning and Subject Area Leader for Personal Development at Henley Business School. A dynamic and creative tutor and facilitator, Chris has over 24 years of experience in management education and training. His research is focused on the use of Reflection in Personal Development in post-experience Management Education and he is also currently drafting a third book, on self-awareness in leadership and management.