Leadership, Radical Uncertainty and Hope

May 1, 2023

But above all, what hope is about for me is uncertainty.

I really wanted to just come to terms with the radical uncertainty and there’s something in a lot of us that hates uncertainty and we’ll fill that void…with false certainty….And I find certainty such a form of ignorance really. And of not really seeing what’s out there, which is I think a mysteriousness, a kind of beauty in mystery that is itself kind of exhilarating. We don’t know what’s gonna happen, so let’s go do this thing.

–Rebecca Solnit on The Science of Happiness podcast


Writer and activist Rebecca Solnit just published a new book I haven’t read yet, co-edited with Thelma Young Lutunatabua, on the case for hope in the climate-crisis narrative.  In Solnit’s recent interview on The Science of Happiness podcast, she discusses her formative engagement with hope and despair in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.  She notes how, in our despondence over war, many Americans told ourselves stories that aren’t true, and how left-leaning people are susceptible to a “tailspin of despair” because of this dynamic.  The truth, she says, is that “We have not achieved the world of perfect equality and safety and justice, but we are in a radically different world[,] if you take the long view.”  Later in the podcast, she cites examples of surprise revolutions from just the last hundred-plus years in this country: suffrage for women, voting and civil rights for Black people, the fall of the Berlin Wall, marriage equality in 2015, and the escalation in our culture’s Black Lives Matter-led racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder.  “A lot of hopelessness,” Solnit observes, “comes from amnesia. The past helps us understand the future. And I just kind of have a long view.”  I agree.  As I wrote in this blog last month, the story-telling feature of our minds offers us a chance to not only lead from the emerging future, but also to lead from the emerging past, as well.

Uncertainty as possibility

I also share Solnit’s lament over the human tendency to fill a void of uncertainty with a “false certainty” rather than to consciously embrace the enlivening properties of “radical uncertainty.”  The hopeful thing, she says, is that you really never know what’s going to happen next, and you can never predict who is going to change the world.

She’s right.  Solnit perceptively describes certainty as a kind of ignorance, which has enormous leadership implications.  As leaders we unconsciously reject the reality that we do not know things because it’s too scary (in our culture leaders are not just supposed to know things, but must also be right), even though – if we consciously sensed into the situation more deeply – we’d realize that pretending to know what we don’t is actually the more terrifying prospect!  While we are wired to seek certainty, simplicity, stability and resolution, these instincts cause us great suffering.  We suffer from certainty because the stark fact is we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) and BANI (brittle, anxious, nonlinear and incomprehensible) world.  Therefore, when we rush to decide, declare, order, rationalize, dissect and complete things, we are making a futile attempt to go against the prevailing conditions and – worse, as Solnit underscores – we close ourselves off from the fertile realm of possibility.  In our suffering from willful ignorance we miss out on “a kind of beauty in mystery that is itself kind of exhilarating.”

I believe that, on some level, the vast majority of us are quite aware that our (understandable) fear-based attachment to certainty tends to foreshorten creative potential.  Yet we’d rather sabotage our own futures by constraining ourselves with unimaginative goals, artificial deadlines and reflexive despair than endure the discomfort of not-knowing indefinitely while we hold a space for something to arise that is almost always fresher, wiser, healthier, more impactful or more magnificent than we ever could have anticipated.  This is why learning to surf uncertainty – like the neutral wave that it is – is an important leadership capacity.  To be clear, what I’m describing is not a passive stance; rather, it is presence-based and emergent.  The humility of not-knowing, propelled by curiosity and hope, spurs conscious action and experimentation in an iterative process that is agile enough to leverage surprise for better results. 


In addition to putting uncertainty forward as a source of hope in this interview, Solnit has recently posited another inspiring reframe worth mentioning here.  Her Washington Post opinion piece, “What if climate change meant not doom – but abundance?” redefines wealth by recasting climate change as a profound opportunity:

What if we imagined “wealth” consisting not of the money we stuff into banks or the fossil-fuel-derived goods we pile up, but of joy, beauty, friendship, community, closeness to flourishing nature, to good food produced without abuse of labor? What if we were to think of wealth as security in our environments and societies, and as confidence in a viable future?

In Solnit’s scenario of inverted values, we are impoverished now and what we can look forward to – if we so choose – is only greater abundance: abundance of what matters most, such as our well-being and that of our descendants, the generative power of connection, and thriving in our interdependence with the rest of nature.  In other words, in a simple flip we could enjoy the true security of sustainable life on Earth rather than bear the burdensome moral and mortal weight of the false, dangerous, unjust and exploitive illusion that short-term consumption equals safety.  Solnit’s ability to constructively subvert and reframe the dominant narrative supports a realistic optimism that is – in my professional opinion – another vital leadership capacity. 

Recommended pairings

For Solnit’s list of practical ways to enliven your hope, see this article in The Guardian.

Solnit’s interviewer on The Science of Happiness podcast, Dacher Keltner, also has a new book out: Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life (Penguin, 2023).  I highly recommend it.  Finding myself occasionally seduced by despair in These Times, I was surprised by the number-one source of awe revealed by Keltner’s research, and you might be, too.  (Spoiler alert: it’s people!)

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