The art of embracing uncertainty and complexity

Throw your hat over the wall

There is a story about two lads who decide to go to the fair one Saturday. It’s a long walk but they are keen. The fair will draw people from far and wide, there will be fairground rides, exotic sights, stalls selling tasty fare and, above all, the chance of romance.

They set out early, borne along on the energy and enthusiasm of youth, through fields and muddy tracks, over streams and through woods. But late in the day they come up short in front of a high wall that borders a wealthy estate.

The wall is long and it is high – to go round would take them miles in the wrong direction and time is pressing. One of the lads is for giving up; his spirits sink at this obstacle. But the other suddenly grabs his friend’s cap and throws it over the high wall.

“What did you do that for?” exclaims the first young man, astonished.

“Well, now it’s done. We just have to figure how to get over the wall and go after it!” responds the other.

boy in hat standing in front of a wall

When faced with uncertainty, just throw your hat over the wall.

Coaching needs to keep up

The world has changed immeasurably since executive coaching developed out of sports coaching and cognitive psychology barely 40 years ago. The picture is bigger and the outlook darker.

Changes to the way we live in the world, with each other and on our endangered planet, are urgent. We all share these challenges, coaches included. The role of the coach is expanding and morphing – and so it should.

Many coaches are questioning the classic remit of helping leaders perform better, particularly within existing systems and contexts some of which, far from helping people flourish, are dysfunctional and even toxic.

I believe that coaches must move on from being the plumbers of the helping professions to putting their stake in the ground and working from an ethical standpoint. In this way they can truly partner with leaders in transforming the rules of the game itself: producing more creative and flourishing workplaces for all.

Coaching has now arrived at the same point as those lads on their way to the fair. We can wait to see if, as a profession, it throws its hat over the wall and commits to the journey forwards. Given the state of our world, I’m convinced it must – and committed to helping it do so.

Taking lessons from nature

In today’s world, complexity is increasing exponentially. Getting a handle on issues can be mind-boggling, especially as today’s answer is often redundant tomorrow.

Little wonder that my clients’ most over-used description of their emotional state is ‘frustrated’. However one way to embrace complexity in our working lives is through first appreciating its beauty in nature.

In the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil, tree roots grow near and above the surface due to the tropical conditions of alternating intensely wet and dry seasons. A walk through the forest is a good reminder of the gorgeous complexity of nature as you step over and through the entanglements of a thousand root systems. They are entwined and shaped by each other and by the necessity of accommodation – to the orchids and philodendron that graft themselves onto branches for support, to the liana and insects that symbiotically make up this rich, brilliant, and complex eco-system.

“Keep it simple!” we’re always told. But we would not wish to simplify a forest, or completely unravel the mysteries of human nature for that matter.

woman in bowler hat entering forest

Appreciating complexity in nature helps us accept it.

We live in a VUCA-ful world

In a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – it is easy to be paralysed between ‘the twin blocks of uncertainty and inevitability’, as described by academic David Runciman.

But if we are to move from exploitative relationships to collaborative ones, we need to come to terms with the fact that our world and the life it supports are immeasurably uncertain and complex.

For each individual, this involves renouncing the charms of narcissism: the view of ourselves as separate from others and nature – and also superior. It means instead embracing the more unpredictable pleasures of diversity. Let’s get over ourselves and learn to love our interdependence!

tree roots

Life is uncertain and complex. Let’s embrace our interdependence.

To engage with complexity and uncertainty means putting more emphasis on the relationships between things than on the person or object itself. The vitality of the whole is in the links, the connections and the energy that flows between them.

As a relational activity, coaching attunes us to these dynamics. With committed coaches working as partners, not technicians, with leaders in business and in the public and third sector, we could gather the groundswell needed for change at scale.

Out of our collaborative efforts business can also evolve to become a force for good.


“The Future of Coaching”

My latest book “The Future of Coaching – Vision, Leadership and Responsibility in a Transforming World” is available to order on, on, and direct from Routledge.


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The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.
Albert Einstein