Uncertainty is loose on the land. It lurks everywhere, particularly in the high towers of businesses. For a generation, they have been more certain than most, thriving while wars loomed and loved ones fell. Terrorism shook nation after nation, and yet businesses remained rock solid, give or take a recession or two. They may stand steady in face of the next shock, be it the stock markets, summer polar ice, revenue growth in the next quarter, the outcome of another election, employment prospects, creeping health issues, or any other form of uncertainty. Their steadiness comes at a cost, which is a seeming paralysis in the face of burgeoning unknowns. Never have we been more awash with data, never so close to drowning in a sea of facts, and our vaunted stability may, like a gimballed compass on a sinking ship, keep us looking north while the water rises over our heads. In every industry in which I serve, the panacea of predictive analytics holds out some faint promise that by fixing a more accurate heading, we’ll somehow stay afloat. The business of risk, of uncertainty, is booming.
My friend Robert, who wrote a book on self-inflicted catastrophes, tells me that we can manage up to 17 different risks at one time. Add an 18th, and we’ll overwhelm our own capacity. So ubiquitous is our flowering sense of the uncertain, that boards spend hours on risk registers and committees and require reporting that reflects a plethora of possibilities.
We monitor for the unwelcome emergence of something bad. But what if the swans—black, grey, or white—are welcome? We clothe uncertainty in malice. We wait, fearful and uncertain, praying that the status quo will endure. We grow stiff from immobility, paralyzed by waiting. When we do finally move, it is with a crack and a frenzy of activity. In this season of waiting, may I humbly suggest an alternative.
Our cloud-residing mountains of data cannot, even with the mightiest of algorithms assemble a picture of an unseen future. And yet there are three distant lights in the gloom, and we can see by them. If we choose to, that is.
The light of aspiration still shines. Not all pursue it, some find it crushed too soon by experience. Others are born to it and embark on every mission and every moment with enthusiasm and high expectations. It fires the imagination of the best employees in the midst of decaying businesses and animates the one who knows the way out, to whom others cling like a limpet. The best companies harness such aspiration and offer their employees a way to put their own small ding in the universe. Hope is certain, even if outcomes are not. You can count on hope everywhere and in any circumstances. It is unreasonable and irrepressible. Hope is at the core of any healthy organization’s culture, and those who hope aspire for a better world. Count on it.
The power of the brand endures. The rooted, legitimate integrity of a brand that is true reflects a potent underlying reality. It stands up to the heat of examination and delivers relentlessly on its promises. The faith true brands engender is not unwarranted. The true brand is a cynic’s greatest curse: a well-founded faith. At the core of any healthy organization’s brand lies this certainty and faith. Count on it.
The sense of mission remains. Though both are certain, faith (the substance of things not seen) and hope (the aspiration for good not yet materialized) cannot dwell alone. There is a third certainty that connects them and emerges from them: a reason why. This is telos—a reason for existence of a business, a community, an employee, a person. The heart of this telos is one of our most distinctly human qualities: our wavering but enduring instinct to serve one another. Some call this love. Others name it service. But no matter the name, it animates us all, even the avaricious. This is the third certainty, and it trumps all the uncertain circumstances of our time. It anchors the brand and cultures of our healthiest organizations; they exist to give to another what they most need. From healthy food, to stable shelter, to fresh water, to all that has been codified in the Sustainable Development Goals. This telos, this purpose to serve another, is the greatest certainty at the heart of any healthy organization. You can count on it.
Rather than wait out uncertain times, we can build businesses on the foundations that are certain. Rather than sink in an ocean of unknowns, we can buoy ourselves and others with forgotten certainties.