“The ideal art, the noblest of art: working with the complexities of life, refusing to simplify, to “overcome” doubt.” – Joyce Carol Oates
In some ways sportsmen and soldiers exemplify all that’s wrong with the world right now. Misplaced hero worship, arrogance and aggression, drugs, sexual abuse, misogyny; the checklist is long and depressing.
On the other hand, these two age-old pursuits epitomise the complex and ambiguous world we operate in. For all that’s amiss, they offer valuable leadership principles by which to navigate volatile and uncertain terrain.
Ric Charlesworth stepped down mid-year after guiding the Kookaburras, Australia’s men’s hockey side, to World Cup glory. Charlesworth is regarded as one of Australia’s greatest-ever coaches. In the 1980s, he stirred controversy in the sporting establishment by junking the team captaincy for what he called ‘leaderful’ teams. With his intuitive understanding of complex systems and feedback loops, Charlesworth was a man ahead of his time.
‘A single leader can generate only so many ideas and concentrate on only so many things,’ he told Forbes magazine in 2009. ‘A critical mass of leaders allows for more possibilities and more solutions and ideas to be filtered by the group. You’re therefore likely to come up with better answers.’
What Charlesworth recognised, as an elite player himself, was that no game plan holds up on the field. No one player can call the shots and determine the plays. It’s up to each individual team member to sense, combine and respond to the highly volatile conditions as they experience them. And sometimes that response is magic, literally a game-changer.
In the same vein, military strategists coined the term ‘the fog of war’ to describe the uncertainty soldiers confront in battle. No military strategy makes it through a war intact: what emerges on the ground requires every soldier, every officer, to make calls based on fast-changing conditions with only intuition and the information at hand. As countless military commanders have learned too late, command-and-control thinking costs lives.
The challenge for leaders, then, is not so much to know ‘enough’ as it is to accept their ‘not-knowing’. That it’s impossible to predict how a situation will pan out, that their store of answers might prove deficient, that others might produce better, wholly innovative, solutions.
It’s a level of consciousness, a letting-go, that seems counter-intuitive. The less they control, the more they achieve. At a global level, think the late Nelson Mandela. Yet we all know such not-knowing leaders. They might not hold formal leadership positions but their ability to maintain grace under pressure, to guide and navigate crisis conditions, makes them stand out.
Some are born with the mindset and skills. Others develop them, through arenas like sport and combat, until their finely honed ‘not-knowing’ gives them a calm and natural authority.
Paradoxically, letting go makes the leader’s role simpler and far more effective. It creates heightened awareness, broad ownership and shared accountability.
‘You all win and lose together,’ says Charlesworth. ‘If the players aren’t taking responsibility for what happens, then they’re not in the right place… A leaderful team makes sure the players own their tactics. It puts the ultimate accountability back on them.’