Certainty vs. Clarity: How Effective Leaders Navigate the Difference

leadership in uncertainty


In an ever-changing world, leaders must balance uncertainty with clarity. This post delves into the difference between certainty and clarity and how leaders can navigate these dynamics to guide their teams effectively during uncertain times.

I’m reading a book that was written before 2020.

I don’t know about you, but I find it challenging to take all the predictions and certainly offered by pre-pandemic authors seriously.

I’m sure you’ve felt similarly.

Yet the book I’m currently reading speaks of leadership certainty versus clarity. It was written in 2017, and what I find most interesting is how spot-on the advice became and remains.

What is Certainty

Let’s define some terms before we compare and contrast.

Certainty refers to a state of complete confidence or absolute knowledge about something.

I’ve heard it said that certainty is “knowing that you know.”

It is akin to having a definite understanding of an outcome, circumstance, or plan.

In a leadership context, certainty is an ideal state where everything is predictable and understood completely. Unfortunately, no such “ideal” state exists. Or if it does, it’s fleeting at best.

Danger lurks when a leader is lulled into believing an ideal state exists.

How does Clarity Differ from Certainty?

In contrast, clarity signifies having clear, understandable, and transparent thoughts and communications.

It revolves around articulating ideas, goals, or current strategies in a way that others can easily understand and follow.

To take this a step further, certainty is focused more on current realities where clarity points to the end goal, desirable future, and preferred outcomes.

Hence, certainty is never all that certain, as present realities continually evolve. But clarity about a vision and desirable future is constant, even when the sands of the moment shift.

As a leader, certainty is always out of our control, yet clarity is persistently within our control.

As my friend and former boss has said,

“Leaders can afford to be uncertain, but they cannot afford to be unclear.” – Andy Stanley

Where Can Leaders Offer Consistent Clarity?

The good news is uncertainty is what makes leadership necessary. Without uncertainty, there’d be little to no need for leadership.

As a leader, you have some specific areas where your organization desperately needs you to provide clarity, regardless of the swirling uncertainty.

Vision and Purpose

Leaders should clearly articulate the vision and purpose of the organization. It gives everyone a sense of direction and understanding of why they do what they do. This is necessary at all times, particularly during times of great uncertainty.

Goals and Objectives

Each team member should know what they’re working towards and what success looks like. Clear goals provide a roadmap for action. During significant uncertainty, “success” may look different, though. For example, during times of great uncertainty, taking a risk or attempting a new approach can be a success regardless of the outcome. Most organizations taking this approach during the pandemic found themselves in better positions during and after.

Roles and Responsibilities

Every member should clearly understand their role within the team or organization and what’s expected of them. This reduces ambiguity and increases accountability. Like goals and objectives, specific roles and responsibilities may shift during times of uncertainty. That’s fine so long as these changes are communicated clearly.

Strategies and Plans

Clarity in strategies and plans helps everyone understand the steps they need to take to reach the goals and how their work contributes to the larger objectives. It’s here where we often see uncertainty create the most havoc. All strategies were created for previous realities; therefore, plans and procedures must adjust when things change.

Decision-Making Criteria

Clarity in decision-making criteria helps in consistent and fair decision-making and sets expectations for employees about how decisions are made in the organization. During times of stability, decision rights and standards can be more flexible. As uncertainty grows, decision-making will change, demanding clarity for all involved.

Feedback and Expectations

Regular, clear feedback helps employees know where they stand and what improvements they can make. Clear expectations set the standard for performance and behavior. Of course, evaluation should be a norm in every organization, but offering more frequent feedback is critical in a state of more significant uncertainty.

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Uncertainty is Here to Stay

One thing that is abundantly clear: Uncertainty is our only certainty.

Uncertainty is a part of our world and organizational life, like it or not.

On the other hand, however, clarity often feels like a forgotten principle. When things around us are uncertain, we cannot allow this tension to reduce leadership clarity. The opposite, in fact.

The more uncertain, the more clarity leaders must provide.

How are you doing with clarity? I suggest asking your team how clear they feel about the above list. Follow up with one of the great leadership questions, “How can I help?”

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