Leading Through Ambiguity

April 28, 2022

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve all been driven to adapt to the uncertainty all around us.

Our friend Andy Robinson of Train Your Board recently wrote about leading in uncertain times. Read on for Andy’s reflections through the lens of a report he authored for ICL, The Less Visible Leader.


A friend recently asked me, “In your role as board president, what’s been your approach to dealing with the pandemic?”

“Embracing ambiguity,” I said, without hesitation. “The virus changes, the health guidance evolves, the future is unclear. We keep adapting, and I’m comfortable with that.”

In that moment, I remembered an Institute for Conservation Leadership report, “The Less Visible Leader,” that I helped to research and write a decade ago.

With the subtitle, Emerging Leadership Models for Environmental Networks, Coalitions, and Collaboratives, my task was to figure out how leadership is expressed within and among “groups of groups.”


What does it take to lead a network?

Are these network leadership skills different than those needed to direct a nonprofit or small business? How can we apply them in our work with partners and peers?

Collaboration is one of my favorite topics, including posts you can find here and here. With the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, income inequality, racial reckoning, the climate crisis, and so much more, it’s a great moment for nonprofits to work together more creatively and intentionally.

With that spirit in mind, this post is adapted from the report (download it for free). Today’s topic: embracing uncertainty as a leadership skill.


Multiple ambiguities

With a few notable exceptions, the people I interviewed for the report talked about living with multiple ambiguities: emerging membership models, partly-defined leadership roles, uncertain funding, power shifts among network participants, individuals and organizations that come and go.

Some observers might confuse ambiguity with sloppiness or laziness; this would be a big mistake. These people are well-organized, work hard, and are intentional about fulfilling their responsibilities. They survive and even thrive with a degree of unclarity that leaders in other circumstances might find intolerable.


Who’s in, who’s out … and does it matter?

For example, some coalitions have formal membership requirements. Others, not so much.

As one network leader told me, “Honestly, it’s not clear who’s a member and who isn’t. We’re zealously inclusive; we want to make it easy for people to participate. So we don’t worry about it.”

Another added, “We don’t define membership. It’s based on a loose set of principles; if you agree with those principles, you’re in. In the beginning, our founding partners wanted to stay away from advocacy. Over time, it’s become clear that grassroots leaders are interested in policy and advocacy, so the line has blurred a bit, but it hasn’t manifested as a problem.”

And a third: “We accept that partner commitments will change, and we try to work with what we have.”


“Structural details are spirit-killing”

These leaders expressed a deep wariness about getting entangled in debates over collective governance, membership, decision-making, or even the appropriate noun to describe their interrelationships. “We’ve gone around in circles about the language,” says one, “so we use several words. We’re a campaign, but we use coalition when it seems useful.”

“Structural details are spirit-killing” says another. “Set them aside. Start by naming shared intentions and building trust.” A colleague adds, “More structure would have driven out many essential participants.”

Here’s another story. “Some of our funders wanted more structure,” reports one leader, “but this led to unnecessary internal arguments. So we build the structure gradually. We have informal rules of conduct; we use consensus and then vote if necessary. Some members have left due to changes in focus, but no one has left due to arguments about process.”


Logistics equals leadership

While many coalition leaders are cautious about creating formal structures, everyone interviewed mentioned the need for effective infrastructure: facilitation, coordination, and communication.

One interviewee calls this, “The leadership of taking on the logistics. The email reminders, typing up meeting notes, the stupid doodle polls…

“Many of our partners are regular people with day jobs,” she adds. “Nobody has time to do this, but you do it anyway. These details hold the group together.”

Most collaborative efforts will live or die based on the quality (and in some cases the quantity) of coordination. “I’m not sure that the words ‘efficient’ and ‘network’ go together,” says one leader, “but we have become far more efficient by having dedicated staff serving as a defined point of contact.”

Even when you embrace creative ambiguity around membership and structure, you still need rock-solid group management and facilitation skills,  and the capacity to connect participants.


Together, we succeed

It may have always been true, but it’s even more true now: most social, economic, and environmental problems we face cannot be solved by individual nonprofits working on their own.

Big long-term challenges like climate change, habitat loss, and food insecurity will only be addressed by building effective networks that include a diversity of perspectives and involve a wide variety of constituencies and organizations.

We can’t build these networks without a certain level of ambiguity, uncertainty, and messiness. Let’s embrace that reality.


Andy Robinson is a consultant with over 40 years of experience working in different nonprofit capacities including as a fundraiser, facilitator, trainer, and community organizer. Author of half a dozen books on social impact strategies, he’s provided support and training to thousands of nonprofit staff and volunteer leaders across 47 states and throughout Canada. Learn more about Andy’s offerings by visiting his website https://andyrobinsononline.com/w/.