‘The only one thing of which I am certain is that there is very little about which one can be certain.’

So said Somerset Maugham in the 1800’s and how poignantly true in these days of COVID uncertainty.

‘I don’t know’. ‘I’m not sure.’ ‘Who knows?’ These are phrases you would seldom have heard a manager utter in past decades. After all, the boss was supposed to have all the answers. Isn’t that what justified his higher salary, company car and corner office?

Long before the days of the home office, many had reached their so-called leadership roles by diligently working their way up the corporate ladder in the one organisation, learning the business from the grass roots in the days when it was expected that they and the company were unlikely to ever part. If they did a reasonable job, they had a reasonable job—for life.

No one has all the answers

The manager might well have been able to give an immediate answer to a specific problem on the factory floor because he’d worked there himself at one time and could delve into the toolkit of his past experience. That reservoir is no longer so replete, given the ever-increasing complexity of the workplace. Most general managers wouldn’t have a clue about marketing on the Internet, how to write a robotics program or the latest industrial relations ruling from the government. And guess what? That’s OK.

Ask the right questions

Because what a good manager now needs is an inquiring mind and the ability to surround himself–or herself– with the people who do know the answers—or are at least in a position to find someone who does. A good manager needs to ask the right questions. They lose credibility and customers if they only pretend to have the answers and don’t.

Leaders gain respect and loyalty if they can create a climate which encourages each and every employee to be empowered and come up with unique solutions to constantly changing situations in the marketplace; to recognise that uncertainty is a way of life. Those who can best accept this ambiguity can best manage it to their advantage.

So relax. It’s OK not to have all the answers as long as you never stop asking the questions—questions about how you and your organisation can not only survive, but continually improve in a rapidly changing and increasingly uncertain world.

Whoever said that death and taxes were the only certainties may still be right—unless, of course, you believe that the soul never dies and tax avoidance is possible with a good accountant and a bank account in the Bahamas.

Uncertainty is here to stay

We all live with varying degrees of uncertainty whether we like it or not, so we may as well accept it as a fact of life. We love pleasant surprises, and a totally predictable life—to my way of thinking—would be somewhat dull. It’s those unpleasant surprises which we find harder to deal with—not just the road blocks imposed by COVID but a traffic detour when we’re running late, a retrenchment when we can least afford the loss of income, an illness when we’re too busy to be sick. None of these things is ever planned and they can range from mildly annoying to totally debilitating. So maybe it’s better if we don’t bank on absolutes quite so much and more willingly accept that uncertainty is a way of life which can’t be altered by being more upset about it.

Admittedly, accepting uncertainty is far easier to write about than actually do! I still prefer to explain things by logic or by precedent but increasingly realise that there are many unexplainable phenomena that don’t readily lend themselves to such explanation.

When I was seventeen, I ‘knew’ certain things were so. I now recognise—albeit reluctantly at times—that this is no longer the case. The more I know, the more I realise how much I don’t know! Maybe that means I’ve learned something along the way because, whether it be in our professional or personal lives, in this age of uncertainty nearly a century and a half after Somerset Maugham was born, his words are even more poignant than ever in that:

‘The only one thing of which I am certain is that there is very little about which one can be certain.’