Are You Embarrassed by This Leadership Addiction?

I was struck by something I found fascinating as I attended the Society of Consulting Psychology winter meeting in Orlando. Prior to the introduction of the speaker, the master of ceremony told the crowd, “Feel free during any of the talks and presentations today to stand up and walk around. It is not rude. Our desire is for you to be healthy.”

Wow! That was different. I have never seen or heard that before!

Then my mind started playing mental gymnastics with itself:

  • "I don’t like that because I have never heard it before."
  • You should be more flexible when you hear new things."
  • “I don’t like it because it is rude for the speaker."
  • “What a great idea to give people permission to be themselves."

As I was trying to decide if I liked this new approach to audience empowerment or if I found it rude, I realized something about myself...

I am addicted to certainty.

Thinking business woman with glasses looking up on many questions mark isolated on gray wall background

Confidence is the positive feeling of being self-assured. I get this overwhelming feeling of calm when things in my life are unwavering.

Certainty is like a drug. It has the power to give us a feeling of peace even in the midst of chaos. Along with this power comes a numbing effect, telling us that we don’t need to be aware of anything else going on around us. The lie that certainty brings with it is that you can stop learning. You know enough that you no longer need to be open to other ideas. You can shut off any discussion opposed to your position because you are certain.

Leaders need some level of confidence in the vision and direction they are taking followers. So, I am not saying you should be paralyzed by uncertainty. What I am saying is keep asking questions. Use critical thinking skills. Stay curious as an antidote against your certainty addiction.

According to Diane Halpern, a critical thinking expert at Claremont McKenna College, the critical in critical thinking signifies an evaluative component. This evaluation is a constructive component.

Yes, I am now a recovering certainty addict. Like any addict who wants to recover, I started digging into the topic to learn more.

When our brains are engaged with change, their default is to say "no way." The brain wants certainty.

As a result, we end up justifying our stance and fall in love with the assumptions that help us move through life. Certainty, then, is an addiction, because our brains become so accustomed to the way things are for us that we become more rigid in our stances. The instinct is to protect ourselves from that which we do not know.

I don’t want to be uncomfortable with people walking around during a presentation, so I have to protect myself from this idea by rejecting it out of hand. The thing that makes me comfortable is the certainty that I am right.

How do we adapt who we are today to the change that is happening around us?

To be relevant in times of change, we must understand the value we bring. Being open and flexible as a leader becomes paramount to your success. Remaining open and curious as to what is going on around you is the key. Flexibility is an important component in emotional intelligence. According to Steve Stein and Howard Book in their work on emotional intelligence, flexibility is the ability to adjust your emotions, thoughts, and behavior to changing situations and conditions.

Become comfortable with the uncomfortable notion that people walking around during a presentation is okay.

The Challenge

What are you doing as a leader to help commit your organization to an attitude of change? A 2003 study by Accenture Consulting found that 77% of organizational cultures embrace entrepreneurial ideas once they had been tried and proven.

As the leader of your organization, how are you doing with becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable things in your world? How are you fostering an entrepreneurial spirit in your organization? What are you doing to help others in the organization show that their ideas have merit instead of saying, “That will never work here."

Here is a great example my HR friends talk about all the time. The question from organizations goes something like this: "How do we attract millennials and keep them?"

I speak with leaders all the time who want to attract these young and creative professionals. However, after they attract them to the organization they treat them like they are something to be domesticated. Rather than learning from them and paying attention to what they are doing, we struggle to control them.

The world is changing and we cannot continue to apply our old assumptions to the new trends that are taking place. Stop fighting it. Stop resisting it. Start being flexible and resist your urge toward the comfort of certainty.

For example, instead of trying to domesticate millennials, which is the certainty principle, why not become playful with your approach to engaging the talent in your organization?

Breaking The Mold of Certainty

Here are 2 questions I picked up from the Futurist at the presentation on ways to break out of the mold of not changing:

  • What is at stake if you do it? What is at stake if you don’t?
  • Micro change: Change is hard, so what can we do? Pilot something different, find what you like, and improve upon it.


Find a place you are really certain about in your leadership. Now, begin to wrestle with the idea of what happens if you do not change. What is at stake if you don’t start looking at it in a different way?