I learned those words long ago. It’s an ironic phrase which means to avoid creating confusion or bewilderment. Even more plainly, it means to speak plainly.
You’d think that’s something every leader would practice. Isn’t it taught in Leadership 101?
Yet, leaders often use ambiguity or outright obfuscation for a variety of reasons. Here are three:
Fear of exposed incompetency. A leader, uncertain of herself or the situation, may not be willing to commit to a direction or opinion. She wants to keep her options open, hoping the situation will resolve itself. But instead of owning that motivation, she says things like: “Let’s give it some time.”
Time for what? Deferring an action or discussion for the sake of “time” without understanding what new information is needed can be an obscuring strategy, merely designed to mask fear or insecurity. To be sure, there are plenty of times when a leader needs to think and act slowly, but those always call for deliberate and intentional thought. A better response would be, “Let’s take some time to outline the options and our resistance to them.”
Fear of alienation. Another reason leaders are often ambiguous is the fear of aliening their support. Politicians have made ambi-speak an art form. A good political speech seems to have something in it for everyone, even as opposing sides interpret the leader’s stance differently. When pressed, someone other than the leader often gets thrown under the bus for holding the unpopular view.
Long ago I was asked to present a very unpopular position from my leadership to a group of our customers; one that I didn’t agree with, but nevertheless, delivered anyway. When the predicted uproar ensued, the very leaders that were adamant behind closed doors about the maintaining the position were quick to publicly reverse it and equally quick to absolve themselves of responsibility for holding it.
Fear of loss of control or power. Fearful leaders often withhold information or deliver obscure perspectives in an effort to maintain control. Since no one knows where the leader stands, every decision in the organization is under the threat of being vetoed by the leader. Often this occurs after considerable time has been spent gaining consensus around an idea that he didn’t champion.
High control leaders create survivor cultures. Few are willing to innovate or take risks to promote an idea that might not be supported by the leader. So employees advance the least-distruptive options, choosing the expediency of a mediocre idea to the frustration that comes from poring oneself into a better idea that might be quickly vanquish.
Of course, the more deep seated the fear, the more easily it is to spot the obfuscating cover-up. But in reality, we all face the temptation to hide behind our ambiguity. Who hasn’t felt inadequate for a task, or the desire to be well liked, or the feeling that comes with being in charge?
The more I think about it, the more I feel like I do now than when I got here. Are we clear on that?
How have you seen leaders hiding behind ambiguity?