Sept. 2, 2021

How to lead through the certainty of uncertainty | Mahan Tavakoli Partnering Leadership Insight

How to lead through the certainty of uncertainty | Mahan Tavakoli Partnering Leadership Insight

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli shares how leaders can effectively lead through uncertainty. With everything going on in the world, leaders might find it frustrating not knowing or being able to predict what’s ahead. Mahan mentions why the only certainty in the near future is that there will be greater uncertainty and shares five elements to consider when leading in a world of ambiguity. 

Some highlights:

-Navigating and leading in a hyper VUCA world

-How to embrace the discomfort of not knowing

-Importance of focusing on purpose with humility

-Why you should think in probabilities

-Lead from the heart with empathy and vulnerability

-The importance of over-communicating with transparency

Mentioned in this episode:

-Bob Johansen, renowned futurist and author (Listen to Bob Johansen’s podcast episode here)

-Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and author

-Annie Duke, author of Thinking in Bets

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

More information and resources are available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:


Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm so excited to have you along with me on this journey of learning and growth and I am so energized by all the comments I get from you. Keep those coming 

There's a microphone icon on You can leave voice messages for me there. And I know you are sharing these episodes with friends and colleagues as the listenership for the podcast is growing across the region, across the country and the globe. So I am truly thankful to you for being purpose-driven leaders and for bringing other people along to become more purpose driven and look to have a greater impact on their teams, organizations, and the community at large.

Now, one of the conversations that I've had with leaders over the past couple of months has been a certain level of frustration they're facing with the level of uncertainty with when things will go back to normal. And one of the things I have to keep emphasizing for the leaders I deal with- is that we are not going back to normal.

And the only thing that is certain in the near term is uncertainty. Which is why I will link in the episode show notes to a conversation I had with Bob Johansen, he trains all three star US generals in working with army war colleges. And he is one of the people that has flipped the term VUCA on its head.

VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. And we are living in a hyper VUCA world. Bob (Johansen) talks about the fact that volatility requires vision, uncertainty requires understanding, complexity requires clarity- being clear with where we are going and flexible on how to get there and ambiguity requires agility. You can listen to that episode, to understand a little bit more of the perspective of the kind of chaos we will be facing and how you can lead through this chaos.

Now, some of the ideas and thoughts that I share with some of my clients is the fact that the first thing all leaders need to do and need to be able to communicate to their organizations and their teams is our needs for embracing that discomfort of not knowing. 

All of us as human beings have a certain desire to know what's ahead. Even if you think about sometimes people looking at horoscopes or going to Palm readers or looking at all kinds of signs. Over history, and even to this day, is people are looking to find out what is coming ahead. There is a discomfort with not knowing. We need to become more comfortable with that- not knowing. Most especially at a time when disruption is at such a high level. So the first element is embrace the discomfort of not knowing. 

The second one is we need to focus our organization and our teams on purpose with humility- acknowledging that we don't really know where things are going to stand a month from now or six months from now. 

There's this misunderstanding of leadership that leaders need to come across as confidence and knowing where they're headed with respect to clarity of direction. Absolutely! You need to be clear on that direction, but not with respect to the flexibility it takes on how to get there.

I love Daniel Kahneman and can spend hours talking about Conaman and I've read all of his works and studied everything Kahneman has written and has ever done. And one of the things Daniel Kahneman says- he is the Nobel prize winner for behavioral economics and is one of the best people with respect to thoughts on decision-making- Kahneman says "every idea I have is a hypothesis" and what a beautiful way to think about it, because when he thinks about it as a hypothesis- hypothesis, like a scientist, it can always be proven right or proven wrong. Rather than a certainty that we know about something and then confirmation bias kicks in and we try to prove that right. So focus on purpose with humility and that genuine humility needs to be part of how we lead our team. 

The third element is thinking in probabilities. I love Annie Duke's book thinking in bets, she was a poker champion and studied a lot of behavioral economics. And one of the things that we do as human beings is we try to think in binary terms, whether things are going to happen or not going to happen, even with respect to elections. When they say there's a chance that 40% one candidate will win and 60% another candidate will win. When the candidate that had 40% likelihood of winning wins, people say "oh my God, the polls were wrong!" Because we- in our minds want to believe that if the chance of winning for one candidate is 60%, that means that person is going to win, rather than thinking 4 out of 10 days, the other person is going to win. We need to think in probabilities and therefore plan for the future, with respect to probabilities.Thinking about the probabilities of different scenarios, whether with respect to short-term or long-term strategic planning, this is really hard for us to do. It's really hard for me to do. So we need to constantly challenge ourselves and assign probabilities and think about it as a scientist, as a hypothesis rather than certainty. So the third item is think in.

The fourth one is that we need even greater connection and leading from the heart with empathy and true vulnerability at times like this. All of us see the discomfort we are facing with not knowing, we have to understand that the people around us also feel that discomfort, if not more. Many of our team members are experiencing the same thing. We need a lot more grace for ourselves and the people around us.

That is not something that should have ended at the beginning of the pandemic. It needs to continue with the fast pace of change, which causes a lot of discomfort for people. Therefore it's important for leaders to show vulnerability and have empathy for other people. To show the humanity and lead from the heart that enables greater connection which we all need at this stage of any crisis, most especially this one.

And then a final element I want you to consider is communicate, communicate, over communicate with transparency. When you don't know things, tell people, I don't know this but continually communicate. In most instances as human beings, when we don't have the information we fill in the gaps in our minds and therefore this crisis and the uncertainty of it makes it even more important for us as leaders to over-communicate with transparency consistently. 

So the five elements that I believe leaders need to keep in mind is embrace the discomfort of not knowing and communicate that way with your team, focus on purpose with humility, think in probabilities, lead from the heart with empathy and vulnerability and over communicate with transparency. This will make it easier and more effective for us to be agile and do what it takes to adjust accordingly to the many disruptions ahead.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this and any other episodes, as I mentioned, keep those emails coming, keep the voicemails coming. You're energizing me. Share your favorite episodes with your friends and colleagues. Don't forget to rate and review and for now, keep in mind that the only thing that is certain about our near-term future is that things are going to remain uncertain. So the most effective leaders will be the ones that will need to know how to lead in the certainty of uncertainty.