Dancing with Uncertainty: the Entrepreneur’s Guide to Being Brave in a World on Fire
by Alyssa Burtt - March 11th, 2021
As entrepreneurs, we are no strangers to navigating uncertainty. We orchestrate many complex, moving pieces to get a business off the ground, overcoming obstacles on the daily. But as you well know, these days have been anything but ordinary.
According to the leadership experts, our world is becoming increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous — a military term adopted by the business world to describe our post Cold War crescendo into complexity and chaos), exemplified all too well by a year that has been marked by a global pandemic, racial justice uprisings, massive forest fires, and an economic collapse. Our mindset has been tested alongside our patience through endless Zoom meetings and adjusting to life working from home.
Our businesses have pivoted, been stretched to their limits, or closed altogether. New businesses have sprung up with the influx of emergency funding, and at times it’s truly all we can do to make it through another day. While we can’t control external events, the good news is this: as entrepreneurs we are a particularly adaptable and resilient species. So how might we leverage this advantageous superpower to bring in the brave and necessary adaptations our world needs in these times?
Fast forward to today and we find ourselves in the Spring of 2021. The hope of a post-pandemic world gleams on the horizon. We discuss regular business issues again like product-market fit and where the next funding round is coming from (though we may never get used to these virtual pitches). This is our victory: we have largely adapted to a new normal. Only, nothing is the same.
I recently attended a workshop for entrepreneurs in a community of catalysts where one of the participants asked the guest presenter Justin Lokitz (author of Design a Better Business and Business Model Shifts as well as Managing Director of Business Models Inc.), “How do you know how much time to invest in any given idea, and which one to go all-in on?”
We all leaned into our zoom screens to hear his answer to this million dollar question, one that has sent many a founder scrambling down rabbit holes looking at market gaps, unmet consumer needs, trend and profit forecasting.
And Lokitz’s answer? He shrugged and said, “the truth is, I don’t know”.
His answer alluded to the fact that if you are seeking a certain path to success as an entrepreneur, you might be in the wrong career path. Lokitz cracked a quizzical smile and reflected on his own journey as a founder entering the crowded market of plant-based nutritional supplements. Sure it’s been done before, there is no glaring market gap, and yet as a vegan in a world where the future of animal-sourced protein is simply unsustainable for our growing population, he is motivated to give it his best shot.
In a world fraught with issues that look increasingly bleak for our collective future, it may no longer be enough to simply chase market demand. We are living in times when leadership and innovation is required. Entrepreneurship by nature is a dance with uncertainty, and more than ever, it has become an invitation to pave a new way forward.
So how does one become a leader anyway? I’ve been exploring this question for the past four years of my World Maker’s leadership program. And with twelve years of running my own businesses, consulting with hundreds of founders, and completing an MBA, I offer the following three leadership principles as an invitation to dance with the uncertainty inherent in the entrepreneurial journey, while holding our responsibility to the world we live in. So here we go:
Articulate your guiding vision, and tell a braver story.
This may seem obvious, but leadership requires clear direction. It’s not enough to know what you don’t want. What world are you committed to creating? Invite your team and stakeholders into the visioning process. Know what matters to you and what you’re committed to, and give it words so you can invite support and follow-ship along the way.
Next, connect the dots with narrative. The human brain makes meaning through story, and audiences these days detect inauthenticity a mile away. So tell the story of the brave futures you’re creating while walking your talk and you’ll gain far more influence than you ever could with facts alone.
Raise the bar. Attempt the impossible. Throw your hat over the fence.
Or don’t. But like a pair of too-small shoes on a growing child, you will encounter the limits of your too-small vision and commitments. Where are you doubting yourself, your capacity, and holding yourself back from declaring the full vision you have inside? You may tell yourself what you really want is impossible, that you’re incapable, not worthy, or just not ready… but more often than not, we’re just unwilling, and perhaps in some denial about it.
The risks get higher when we put everything on the table. We might fail, invite criticism, lose important relationships, or become someone unrecognizable to who we are today. Change is scary, so we stay stuck in indecision. But the existential truth is that every decision will bring a certain amount of regret (and even not deciding is still a decision).
So the only way to discover if you can accomplish the impossible is to attempt it. You’ll never be able to foresee and plan for all the obstacles ahead of you. You have the power to simply decide and commit. Your commitment doesn’t require perfection, and will never guarantee success, but the very act of committing will open new vistas and anchor you in your locus of control. So what vision do you have inside that’s just waiting for you to show up for it? What hat are you willing to throw over the fence?
Perfectionism is the graveyard of innovation. Resign as judge. Reframe failure as your greatest teacher.
We often think of perfectionism as a healthy striving for excellence, but in practice it’s often a form of violent idealism that kills creativity and innovation at the root. In resigning from our role as judge, and reframing failure as our greatest teacher, we invite a culture of learning and creativity that unleashes our potential in a way that the tightened fist of perfectionism never will. Because at the end of the day, the biggest difference between success and failure is simply a judgement. We crave and chase success, while fearing and avoiding failure (often at all costs!) Sometimes we don’t even attempt success, because that’s scary too. Our judgement binds us in cycles of avoidance and attachment, shame and ego glorification. But when we remove our preferences and biases, success and failure become one and the same: namely a learning opportunity.
Culturally we have a long way to go to inhabit this perspective, but as entrepreneurs, we are the wiser to fail fast and often, testing our assumptions and ideas with prototypes in the wild to inform our decisions with real data. As you and your team navigate from failure to success to failure, the most important questions to carry in your arsenal may be: “what did we learn?”, “did we get what we wanted?”, and “what now?” pivoting and iterating as you go.
So I invite you to embrace the fact that you will fail; even go as far as seeking out failure to test your assumptions and learn, as this is the very skill set required when charting the unknown.
In the end, the futures we envision are not satisfied with what has been done before. These futures are asking us to be brave and forge new paths beyond a horizon we have yet to explore. It’s the kind of brave that might feel a little crazy, naive, and deeply vulnerable, but it’s fueled by a flame of inner knowing, a vision of meaning and beauty that makes it all worthwhile. And what have we got to lose, but everything?