Personal Leadership: Thrive in Ambiguity

by Alli Polin on April 29, 2014

Leadership: Learn to Thrive Through Ambiguity and Make the Leap

Today, I’m filled with far more questions than answers.  I keep sitting with the same questions turning them over and over, researching the answers on Google for hours on end, and waiting for my ah-ha moment. Frankly, deep down inside, I know my answers aren’t out there, floating in cyberspace, waiting for just the right keyword combination. (A girl can wish, can’t she?)  Life will always be filled with questions that can’t be googled, because the answers are in us… not out there.  Strong personal leadership requires each of us to learn to thrive in ambiguity and not give in to paralysis, whining, or throwing up hands in defeat.  Easier said than done?  Not if you’re asking the right questions.

There are small questions that can hang us up:

  • What should I wear to my meeting today?
  • Is it too soon to follow-up?
  • If I eat the cake tonight, how many miles will I actually run tomorrow?

There are big questions that pull us into ambiguity:

  • When is the right time to start my own business?
  • Is it possible I’m the worst parent in the world?
  • If I make the wrong choice, what if I can’t undo it?

Questions shouldn’t stop us, but instead deepen our understanding of what’s really important.  Sometimes, simply reframing the question is enough to have the ah-ha you need.  Other times, it’s sitting with the question, instead of shooing it away, that can truly be the most powerful.  Yet others are simply focused on the surface and it’s what’s underneath that is hanging us up the most.  No matter how you do it, it’s time to make a decision.

Learn to Thrive in Ambiguity

Here are three questions to ask as you work on your personal leadership muscle and learn to thrive in ambiguity.

What’s the worst that can happen if you just get started?

Ambiguity can be cloudy, undefined and down-right scary.  Big ol’ Type A’s like to take swift action and want to do it NOW.  So… move.  Get started. Are you really going to let a story about “the worst thing” stop you from going where you need to go?  Say it out loud, write it down or tell a friend your down-right scary worst-case thing.  Let it breathe, like a fine wine, and flick it away.  Start directionally correct and you’ll find success faster than standing still and waiting for divine intervention.

What will happen if you make no choice at all?

Tempting, isn’t it?  As if making no choice leaves everything magically up to the universe and your ultimate destiny.  Hello… sorry to interrupt this programming, but that’s just a load of crap.  Making no choice at all is absolutely a choice for the status quo.  You better be ready to keep things as they are and see how they play out because that’s what you’re choosing.

What is your gut telling you?

Endless research can serve to muffle our inner-knower only for so long.  Facts matter, but so does feeling. The flashlight that will cut through the darkness of ambiguity is often your gut and heart, and not a spreadsheet or search engine. Learning to tune into your gut will serve you well in all aspects of your life and personal leadership.

I love that in Australia, people go gem and gold fossicking, or prospecting, to find unseen treasure.  They sift through the mud and dirt to find the treasure hidden within; it’s hands on, in the mess, pure discovery.  Exactly what you and I need to do to move through ambiguity to discover the hidden gems and answers within.

Leadership is thriving through ambiguity, yes.  But when you unpack that statement, it’s clear that leadership is making intentional choices and feeling your way though, based on what you know and value.

How have you thrived through ambiguity?  Please share in the comments below. 

Are you ready to do some personal fossicking?  Let’s Connect!

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Mertz April 29, 2014 at 7:49 am

Spot on points, Alli. I have been amazed by what unfolds when we just put ourselves out there and do the work we believe we should be doing. What happens is new relationships develop and your path may weave but you will end up in a better place than you originally thought. We just need to discern what we want to do, go do it, and then be open to change as things unfold. Thanks! Jon


Alli Polin May 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

I’m with you, Jon. It can feel awkward stepping into the unknown but putting ourselves out there is key! I’m also with that we can’t expect every step we take to travel along a straight line. Adjustments, flexing, compromise and collaboration are all critical as we move through ambiguity towards a meaningful vision.

Many thanks!


Terri Klass April 29, 2014 at 9:19 am

Fear is one of the greatest reasons we don’t pursue our dreams and have such a difficult time living in limbo.

Like Jon, I find that just taking action can sometimes unstick me and open up an opportunity that I didn’t even know existed.

What I have learned is that being flexible, trying things that feel uncomfortable and talking to others can unhinge some of my fear. That’s how I got started in social media and I’ve had the most fun and learned to much.

Thanks for getting me to think about the importance of thriving in a world of constant change, Alli!


Alli Polin May 1, 2014 at 1:01 am

Flexibility is definitely one of many secrets to success! Jumping in before we see a clear path means lots, and lots and lots of learning is bound to happen along the way.

I always appreciate your insights and wisdom. Thanks!


Bob McInnis April 29, 2014 at 10:29 am

Wow, when I opened my email this morning and saw the preview of your subject line ” Ambiguity Stinks”, I thought “this is the first time I have strongly disagreed with Alli.” I was therefore thrilled to read the title when I opened the link to breaktheframe.

I embrace ambiguity because certainty is a false idol. In a time of unstoppable exponential change being comfortable with uncertainty, encouraged by mystery and provoked by puzzlement is our greatest strength.

The gem for me was the reminder to look for treasure everywhere and I had never heard the term fossicking before.




Alli Polin May 1, 2014 at 1:03 am

Brilliantly said, Bob! “Being comfortable with uncertainty, encouraged by mystery and provoked by puzzlement is our greatest strength.” When curiosity combines with confidence and creativity, when faced with uncertainty, it can become and unstoppable combination!

Huge thanks to you for your insights!


Blair Glaser April 29, 2014 at 10:49 am

Loved this, Alli. I too, enjoyed learning the word “fossicking.” Ambiguity is a creative place when it is alive with the unknown and possibility. But as you point out in your paragraph about choice, it can also be a place to hide. One of my favorite meems that went around the internet was a little Las Vegas-type of neon sign that read: AMBIGUITY: What happens in Vagueness, Stays in Vagueness. Thanks for the encouragement to “just get started.”


Alli Polin May 1, 2014 at 1:05 am

You know, Blair, far more people would keep moving forward on a journey of discovery and possibility if they let ambiguity become and opportunity for creativity.

Appreciate the meme too! Spot on!


LaRae Quy April 29, 2014 at 12:57 pm

This is one of your most powerful posts, Alli!

Great metaphors all way around…love the comparison to finding gold amongst the muck. We’re all prospectors of some kind.

Getting through uncertainty is the hardest for most folks, but the key is to always be on the outlook for that piece of shining good news 🙂


Alli Polin May 1, 2014 at 1:06 am

Thanks, LaRae! Taking the mentality that we’re prospectors takes the most challenging situations and injects some fun, adventure, curiosity and possibility… all things that can push past fear and take us to new undiscovered places.


Kneale Mann April 29, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Hey Alli,

You know those moments when you see someone say or do or write something you are struggling with and suddenly the light goes on? Yeah, that. Thanks for this, thanks for sharing your struggles and concerns, thanks for being real!

Now, what is this Google thing you write about again? 😉


Alli Polin May 1, 2014 at 1:08 am

Thanks, Kneale! There are enough people out there that think they have all of the answers we could ever need. The truth is, a good question will give us an ah-ha faster than any answer.

You rock!


John Thurlbeck April 29, 2014 at 6:07 pm

Hi Alli

Great article, although I do prefer the acronym VUCA to describe many of the elements you note in your post!

One of my least favourite words in the English language is AMBIGUITY, as I am a fan of CLARITY … and focus, purpose, direction and the like. I understand, however, that sometimes a journey of discovery is needed.

What I struggle with is when ambiguity is caused by my other least favourite word – mediocrity! Now there’s something guaranteed to set my hackles alight!

Have a brilliant week! 🙂


Alli Polin May 1, 2014 at 1:12 am

I know only the tip of the iceberg about VUCA but now I’m going to read more!

I love clarity too and often crave it, wish for it, dream about it, and hope with my fingers crossed. Somehow that rarely works for me 😉 It’s turning the quest for clarity into an opportunity for creative experimentation and exploration that makes it possible to keep searching.

Oh my gosh with you on mediocrity too! Especially when mediocrity is what’s keeping people in the clutches of ambiguity instead of making bigger, bolder or more difficult choices.

Thanks a ton for your thoughts!!


Mike Brown May 1, 2014 at 8:13 am

It’s not the cake – but the ice cream that does me in… 😉

The truth is – if your world is not grey – then you’re not stretching/learning…


Alli Polin May 1, 2014 at 7:05 pm

Kinda makes the grey something to look forward to, huh? Excellent point, Mike!!


Gary Gruber March 20, 2017 at 8:07 am

A good reprise post that I missed back in 2014. . Why not? When something like this resonates, it still has some mileage so put it back on the table.
As for ambiguity it may seem like the enemy of clarity and moving forward purposefully. But not so. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
When I have been stuck with an either/or proposition, I try often to switch to both and if practical or maybe not practical. And we can also look for the third option to get unstuck. Thanks for sharing, again.


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